Will Someone Please Design A Better Space Elevator?

Over a century ago, a Russian scientist dreamed up the idea for a space elevator. It was an audacious scheme for a cable to connect the Earth to space allowing us to access areas beyond our atmosphere with nary a shuttle mission.


Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 work, The Foundations of Paradise, introduced the idea to a broad audience, and when work with tiny but strong carbon nanotubes took off in the present century, more scientists took the idea seriously. Now, two theoretical physicists hatched a whole new way to make it work—have the space elevator rotate.

The standard way scientists have dreamed up such a contraption, like the vision that came out of a 2000 NASA workshop, interprets the phrase "space elevator" about as literally as one could: it's a car much like an elevator car, propelled by electromagnetism, ferrying people or goods to a space station or some other counterweight about 50 kilometers above Earth's surface.

An alternative version that physicists Leonardo Golubović and Steven Knudsen of West Virginia University have drawn up involves no elevator shaft at all. Rather, long looped strings rotate to create a centrifugal force that conquers gravity. Golubović explains it's like stirring a couple of coffee—if you stir too vigorously, you create too much force and the coffee flows up out of the cup. The rotating strings in this theoretical model would provide enough force to lift objects up the elevator on their own. Not content with merely creating an elevator to space, the scientists' rotating engine could even blast satellites or spacecraft into orbit. In theory.

The space elevator is one of the great dreams of the sci-fi camp that cause the dreamers to pour hours into figuring out how it might become reality. But unlike the time travel that J.J. Abrams obsesses over, a space elevator defies no theoretical physics—it's just damn hard to engineer.

Still, scientists are taking the idea seriously. A proposal to geoengineer the Earth to arrest climate change (pouring aerosols into clouds to thicken them) could be achieved via a space elevator. However, until somebody gets the audacity and permission to string carbon nanotubes out beyond our atmosphere, designing a space elevator will remain the stuff of imagination.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why the ocean you know and love won’t exist in 50 years

Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?

Videos
  • Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
  • The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
  • If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
Keep reading Show less
Image source: Topical Press Agency / Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Though we know today that his policies eventually ended the Great Depression, FDR's election was seen as disastrous by some.
  • A group of wealthy bankers decided to take things into their own hands; they plotted a coup against FDR, hoping to install a fascist dictator in its stead.
  • Ultimately, the coup was brought to light by General Smedley Butler and squashed before it could get off the ground.
Keep reading Show less

Health care: Information tech must catch up to medical marvels

Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's CEO, believes we're entering the age of smart medicine.

Photo: Tom Werner / Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The United States health care system has much room for improvement, and big tech may be laying the foundation for those improvements.
  • Technological progress in medicine is coming from two fronts: medical technology and information technology.
  • As information technology develops, patients will become active participants in their health care, and value-based care may become a reality.
Keep reading Show less