Hold on tight, turn up the elevator music, and get ready for a whole new mode of space exploration!
Forget rocket launches! We already use elevators to bring us to extreme heights in our tallest buildings, so why can’t they take us just a little further into space? But wait, how much would that cost? Do we even possess the technology to make that possible? And what would we gain from the whole endeavor?
Here’s what would happen if we built an elevator to space.
Would you like to take a cheap vacation to space?
Well you might be in luck because although the construction of a space elevator would be incredibly expensive, eventually it would make space travel much more affordable, and open up a whole world of opportunities.
But scientists tell us that there would also be a slew of technological, logistical, and political hurdles to overcome. Would it even be worth it?
Every elevator needs a starting point and a destination. So to make our space elevator, the first thing we’d need to do is launch a satellite (or destination) way up into the sky. But how tall would our lift need to be?
Well, as of right now, the tallest structure we’ve ever built is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which stands at 829.8 meters. In order to create a successful space elevator, it would have to be at least 35,786 km tall; that’s more than 40,000 times taller than anything we’ve ever built.
Besides the obvious necessity of leaving our atmosphere, the reason the space elevator would have to be so tall is to reach something called Geostationary Orbit.
This is the point where an object’s “natural orbit” exactly matches the speed of rotation of the Earth below it. Reaching this orbit would ensure that our elevator shaft always remains straight, and our destination never moves relative to where we launched from.
Our next step would be to lower a cable or ribbon from the satellite, and attach it to our starting point back on Earth. Clamped to the cable would be a form of elevator car that would carry people or cargo up and down.
If we can successfully pull this all off, it would completely revolutionize space exploration. Right now our primary means of getting to space are rockets, and rockets are expensive.
At current prices, it costs about 20 thousand dollars to send 1 kg into space. To put it in perspective, that means approximately 1.3 million dollars to send an average human up there. After construction, the cost of sending 1kg into space with a space elevator would be reduces to just 200 dollars.
If we set up a space station at the top of the elevator, we’ll be able to launch all our missions from there, and not have to worry about the costs that are usually involved with propelling out of our atmosphere.
On top of easy traveling, a space elevator would also open up some new energy possibilities. If we place giant solar panels along our ribbon, they could collect far more energy than panels on Earth and radiate it back at a low cost.
This all sounds good in theory, but it also comes with a lot of obstacles. The main one is the ribbon that connects it all: it has to be light, affordable, and more stable than any material we can produce right now.
If we don’t wait for the right material, our ribbon could snap, and that would be very dangerous. If it breaks near the base, the force applied to the satellite will cause the whole thing to rise into space; and if it snaps near the top the ribbon will fall, wrapping around the world and creating dangerous space debris.
So as tempting as it may be to go all in on the space elevator right now, maybe we’d be best to wait until we’re able to do it right.