The idea of a space elevator is one of the most important concepts toward space travel mankind has ever considered, and now NASA has developed a method that may actually bring that concept to reality. One of the things still needed? A robot light enough for the job. Since batteries are notoriously heavy, the robot will need to be powered by something else. What’s more Sci-fi than a robot climbing a cable into space? The robot is powered by lasers. That’s the idea behind NASA’s contest for ingenuity. The prize? Nine hundred thousand dollars, and another three million for anyone who can one up them.
So maybe a space elevator is still years from actually being built, but the concept has a few working pieces of technology that are already in the works. One of the advantages of a space elevator is the lack of fuel required to escape Earth’s gravitational field. “Terminal Velocity,” as it’s called is required to take off from the planet’s surface and reach the weightlessness required for extended orbit. Unfortunately once a rocket begins takeoff, it has to drag all the fuel behind it making the rocket heavier, which means more fuel is required which means it’s even heavier, which means even more fuel is required, etc. Once the technology reaches the next level, escape from earth’s surface will be a breeze and space travel will take an important step in the right direction. It’s also one of the larger hurdles holding back an extensive space station and colonization of both the Moon and Mars. A real space elevator cable would need to be over 60,000 miles long and reach a tether in space capable of holding it there.
Still, the robotics team that developed LaserMotive has claimed the second place prize. First place, unfortunately, is at a stalemate as the top robotics system was exposed to too powerful a laser, frying some of its circuits. The idea is to have photovoltaic cells in an advanced sensor that is capable of absorbing direct light in any weather over a vast distance. The laser must be calibrated to work with the robot as it uses it to climb.
Runners up were the Kansas City Space Pirates, who were unable to complete the course, and the Saskatchewan team whose robot died before getting off the ground. The contest, known as a power-beaming competition has been going on for four years, and LaserMotive is the best so far. When asked how he was going to celebrate his victory Mr. Nugent, member of the LaserMotive team said “a lot of us may celebrate by going to sleep.” That’s forty winks well earned!
The refreshing attention the public has been giving NASA and other space programs lately comes just days after water has officially been declared found on the moon. A space elevator would be the perfect way of transporting cargo up into platforms made to deliver goods to a Lunar base. It will be interesting to see how the cable is actually taken all the way to space now. Sounds like another contest.