The prospect of devices that would enable passengers to be disassembled into atoms, transmitted through space, and then reassembled at the other end, has often been broached in science fiction. Think of all those classic Star Trek episodes, where Captain Kirk, requiring to escape the clutches of sundry anti-social aliens, flips open his mobile device to utter the well-worn phrase: ‘Beam us up, Scotty!' Sadly, the key word in that opening description is ‘fiction'. However, rapidly moving bodies from a planet surface into positions high up in the atmosphere is not necessarily a complete fantasy. Welcome to the concept of the space elevator.
Firstly, what exactly are we talking about when we use the phrase space elevator? This would be a device made up of a tether, anchored on the ground, that would reach 100,000 kilometers up into space. This means of transport would provide safe and inexpensive access to an orbital point, as often as was deemed necessary. The overall concept was recently discussed in a report conducted by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), and entitled: ‘Space elevators: an assessment of the technological feasibility and the way forward'.
The findings of the report make for interesting reading. In the first place, the experts concluded that, theoretically, a space elevator was viable, on the understanding that the risks could be overcome with the likelihood of technological advances as the century progresses. A degree of international co-operation would also need to be applied, resulting in a robust administrative infrastructure being built alongside the technical blueprint.
The tether that would deliver electronic vehicles up into the atmosphere would need to meet various economic criteria. The actual vehicles themselves – described as climbers in the report – would travel up and down at the speed of high-speed trains. The difficulty of maintaining a degree of tautness in the tether would be accomplished by the very rotation of the Earth.
One positive aspect of this technology is that the concept itself is nothing new. As long ago as 1895 the Russian space scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky suggested building a free-standing tower, reaching from the planet's surface to the height of ‘geostationary orbit', at 35,800 kilometers. His prototype vision has been fine-tuned subsequently, to varying degrees, by writers, engineers and scientific researchers. But the recent study marks a considerable shift it the thinking behind space elevators, from the theoretical to the practical.
According to the President of the IAA, Gopalan Madhavan Nair: ‘no doubt all the space agencies of the world will welcome such a definitive study that investigates new ways of transportation with major changes associated with inexpensive routine access to geostationary earth orbit and beyond'.