Obayashi Corp., headquartered in Tokyo, has unveiled a project to build a space elevator by the year 2050 that would transport passengers to a station 36,000 kilometers above the Earth and transmit power to the ground.
Wow, sounds cool … ah but hold on, lets cast a bit of a skeptical eye over this.
Who? – They are construction contractors based in Japan
Could they afford to do this? – Perhaps, their 2011 accounts shows they have roughly $20 Billion in assets, but I suspect the actual cost of a space elevator might exceed even that.
Do they in fact do Mega-Construction projects? – Apparently yes
So what exactly do they propose?
A cable, made of carbon nanotubes, would be stretched up to 96,000 kilometers, or about one-fourth of the distance between the Earth and the moon. One end of the cable would be anchored at a spaceport on the ground, while the other would be fitted with a counterweight.
The terminal station would house laboratories and living space. The elevator car could carry 30 people to the station at 200 kilometers per hour, a 7-1/2 day trip. [How long!! ... that's one hell of an elevator ride]
It will also include a space solar power system to transmit power to the ground for electrical distribution.
What are the current problems?
The obvious ones of course …
- 96,000 kilometers of carbon nanotubes … that is not currently possible and we have no idea if it ever will be within our reach to manufacture on that scale in a cost-effective manner
- Cost – “At this moment, we cannot estimate the cost for the project,” an Obayashi official said.
- Radiation – as you ride up and down through the Van Allen belts you would potentially end up with a dose well above permitted levels so you also need to solve the shielding problem as well
I’m guessing, but suspect they are serious and that it is not just a bit of hype to generate some PR. They are obviously confident that the sprawling academic and industrial base in Japan can solve the issues, but I personally have doubts, and suspect if they don’t collaborate on a wider scale, then it will not happen.
I do see more than a dream, hope, or aspiration to reach up, but I do not yet see a viable solution. What is interesting is that David Smitherman of NASA/Marshall’s Advanced Projects Office is quoted as saying after a space elevator workshop last year, “This is no longer science fiction,We may very well be able to do this.‘”. So it is indeed potentially in our grasp but not until we crack the obvious challenges. Just to place that quote in context, according to Smitherman, construction is not feasible today but it could be toward the end of the 21st century. “First we’ll develop the technology,” said Smitherman. “In 50 years or so, we’ll be there. Then, if the need is there, we’ll be able to do this.”
The Japanese are not alone, many others are looking into all this as well, and that includes both the obvious candidates such as NASA, and the not-so-obvious such as Google (no kidding click here).
I’ll toss this into reddit/skeptic to see what others think …
- can we crack the problems?
- what other issues do we need to think about?