by Kimm Groshong
A slim cable for a space elevator has been built stretching a mile into the sky, enabling robots to scrabble some way up and down the line.
|In January, LiftPort team members deployed a mile-long tether with the help of three large balloons in the Arizona desert (N Aung/LiftPort Group)
LiftPort Group, a private US company on a quest to build a space elevator by April 2018, stretched the strong carbon ribbon 1 mile (1.6 km) into the sky from the Arizona desert outside Phoenix in January tests, it announced on Monday.
The company's lofty objective will sound familiar to followers of NASA's Centennial Challenges programme. The desired outcome is a 62,000-mile (99,779 km) tether that robotic lifters – powered by laser beams from Earth – can climb, ferrying cargo, satellites and eventually people into space.
The recent test followed a September 2005 demonstration in which LiftPort's robots climbed 300 metres of ribbon tethered to the Earth and pulled taut by a large balloon. This time around, the company tested an improved cable pulled aloft by three balloons.
To make the cable, researchers sandwiched three carbon-fibre composite strings between four sheets of fibreglass tape, creating a mile-long cable about 5 centimetres wide and no thicker than about six sheets of paper.
"For this one, the real critical test was making a string strong enough," says Michael Laine, president of LiftPort. "We made a cable that was stationed by the balloons at a mile high for 6 hours…it was rock solid."
A platform linking the balloons and the tether was successfully launched and held in place during the test. LiftPort calls the platform HALE, High Altitude Long Endurance, and plans to market it for aerial observation and communication purposes.
But the test was not completely without problems.
The company's battery-operated robotic lifters were designed to climb up and down the entire length of the ribbon but only made it about 460 m above ground. Laine told New Scientist that the robots had worked properly during preparatory tests and his team is still analysing the problem.
In March, LiftPort hopes to set up a HALE system in Utah's Mars Desert Research Station and maintain it for three weeks. Then, later in the spring, Laine says he wants to test a 2-mile (3.2-km) tether with robots scaling to at least half way up.
Laine aims to produce a functioning space elevator by 2018 – a date his company chose in 2003 based on a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts study, which said an elevator could be built in 15 years. "This is a baby step, but it's part of the process," he says of LiftPort's recent test.
The idea is to build the actual elevator's ribbon from ultra-strong carbon nanotube composites and to have solar-powered lifters carry 100 tonnes of cargo into space once a week, 50 times a year.
Story continues at newscientistspace.com/