Space elevators are usually the type of future-tech you usually associate with special effects in science fiction, but Japan is going there. For real. A payload that could potentially turn into something that once existed only in our imaginations recently landed at the ISS on Japan’s HTV-7 robotic cargo spacecraft.
The STAR-Me (Space Tethered Autonomous Robotic Satellite-Mini Elevator) experiment was developed as a collaboration between Shizuoka University researchers and Japanese construction firm Obayashi.
So this is just a scaled-down version of the actual space elevator that Obayashi (and now, every sci-fi nerd out there) envisions, but what it could lead to is literally huge. The prototype will be a 30-foot cable, stretched tightly between two camera-equipped cubestats moniotoring the action, that a small motorized box or “climber” will traverse.
"This could be the story of the century: Reliable, safe and efficient access to space as a transportation capability that is nearer than you think," International Space Elevator Consortium (ISEC) president Pete Swan told Space.com.
Yes, an international organization for the advancement of space elevators really does exist.
While this proto is a thrilling leap from fiction to science, there are still two major glitches that need to be solved before such a thing really does shuttle payloads — and people — hundreds of thousands of feet into space. The real deal will hang from geostationary altitude. Whatever is used as the tether material must be super-strong, as in being able to support its own weight without breaking.
"Progress has been made, and after decades of work, there is the prospect of single crystals 62,000 miles [100,000 kilometers] long with the required strength. The best materials are based on carbon structures, either nanotubes or graphene sheets," STAR president Jerome Pearson also told Space.com.
We still have a long way to go (up) even if these methods work. Space is swarming with satellites and junk metal that zoom through microgravity at breakneck speed could easily crash into that tether and could turn the elevator into more space junk. “Waves” in the tether might help avoid some satellites in low-Earth orbit, but there is already a horde of them out there, which will only grow with what SpaceX and OneWeb will soon be sending up. We do need universal wifi.
It is possible that these satellites could somehow be programmed to avoid the elevator, but that is much more complicated than it sounds.
If Japan does pull this off, it could end up literally shooting not just for, but to the moon. With one tether on the lunar service and the other in cislunar space, the payloads that could be transported to and from the moon via solar-powered car might actually cancel out expensive rockets carrying heavy fuel tanks. Our satellite’s current spotlight in the media certainly doesn’t hurt.
Just one question. With so many levels this elevator will zoom through, which button do you press to get to the moon?