Monday, October 13, 2003

Los Alamos Lab Envisions Space 'Elevator'

"The first country that owns the space elevator will own space," said lab scientist Bryan Laubscher. "I believe that, and I think Los Alamos should be involved in making that happen."

Some Los Alamos scientists are so convinced it can be a reality that they are working on their own time on technical details.

Five to 10 scientists at any given time are analyzing the economics, technical specifications of how the elevator would work and possible health risks to those using it. Laubscher said the grassroots effort hopes the U.S. Department of Energy could someday use the information as a start for investing in a space elevator.

The elevator shaft would be made of a very strong, thin, lightweight material called carbon nanotubes attached to the Earth's equator. The shaft, really a 32 million-story-tall cable, would be carried into orbit on a conventional spacecraft, then gradually dropped down to Earth to be attached to a platform similar to an ocean oil-drilling rig.

Solar-powered crawlers would move up and down the shaft, carrying payloads of satellites or probes to be placed in Earth's orbit or beyond. They also would attach additional cables to the main shaft that eventually would become new elevators.

"It would create huge, huge savings over how we launch stuff now," said Ron Morgan, a health scientist working on the project. "From the top of it, we could throw things off to Mars or to the inner solar system. Launching those things on conventional rockets costs a fortune."

No one has made a carbon nanotube cable longer than a few feet but Laubscher said technology is improving daily, and a cable could be possible in a few years.

A payload on the shuttle costs about $15,000 per kilogram to launch into orbit. A 150-pound person weighs 68 kilograms.

A payload on the first space elevator likely would cost about $1,000 per kilogram, which could drop to $50 to $100 in time, Laubscher said.

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