A 1.6km-long carbon ribbon in the skies above Arizona

According to New Scientist, “a handful of entrepreneurs” want to “step into a small airtight box, push a button marked ‘space’, and ride an elevator all the way up a cable reaching far into the sky.”

25671902[Image: New Scientist].

In early 2006 the engineering firm LiftPort “successfully unrolled a 1.6-kilometre-long carbon ribbon in the skies above Arizona, stretched it taut using helium-filled balloons and sent a robotic climber scrambling up part of its length. The company aims to build a functioning space elevator by 2018.”
This vision – of insectile machines climbing braided metal ropes into the sky – sounds like some kind of science fictionalization of Aztec mythology; but it’s also about to become a technological reality.
Apparently a “19th-century Russian space visionary” named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first came up with the idea, proposing “a ‘celestial castle’ in space at the end of a spindly tower, to be reached by humans in an elevator running up and down the tower’s length.” And so on and so on.
Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking a lot about cathedral architecture, and about the apparent lack of structural ideas in contemporary Christian architecture, and I’ve become very interested in the idea that elevators could be used as prayer chapels – vertically nomadic radial spaces in which the pious, or simply those who’ve been abandoned by the world, could spend time alone and think. So the question is: could you reinvigorate interest in Christianity, say, by constructing a kind of space cathedral – a geostationary extension of Notre-Dame, an earthless Vatican – made of nothing but tethered elevators: glass spaces, filled with sculpture and light, riding up and down throughout the atmosphere? Or a space mosque, for that matter, a space synagogue?
A cathedral made entirely from glass elevators is certainly not a technical challenge; it shouldn’t even be a question of budget or funding.
In the city distance somewhere twenty years from now you see a shimmering mirage: a cathedral of glass and steel and its ten thousand elevator-chapels, each riding magneto-pneumatic enginery into space…
From earth to the moon: a night in the Sistine Elevator.

(Earlier: Churches of the void-grinder and Church of Earth, Magmatic, the latter a particular favorite of mine).

23 thoughts on “A 1.6km-long carbon ribbon in the skies above Arizona”

  1. This could never work. There’s going to be way too much friction with the earth’s atmosphere. Think tiles on the shuttle and how much of a problem those have become.

  2. Friction isn’t an issue. The elevator cable (obviously) doesn’t move in relation to the atmosphere (wind excepted) since it’s anchored to the ground and the elevator cars move slowly enough that they don’t get hot. There’s no need to go at escape velocity (18000mph or so) with an elevator, you can take as long as you like and enjoy the view…

    The real issue is cable strength and new carbon structures may be able to deal with this.

  3. think of the cable hooked to the earth – relative to the earth, the cable’s not moving. Now think 50 miles up, relative to the earth, the cable is still not moving, but relative to the 50mile+ up atmosphere, there’s friction. You can’t say that the atmospere at 50+ miles is doing the things that are happening at the earth’s surface.

  4. carbon cables? carbon is nice’n’strong in compression, but resisting tension forces is not really it’s thing. Carbon sure sounds strong though, when you’re peddling rhetoric.

  5. what bullshit, very imaginative but stupid,OK, here’s this cable in the sky and all of an sudden a jet plane hit’s it ..

  6. The Space Elevator will happen. It simply makes sense. The physics involved are understandable. The major challenge is for the material development of the ‘string’. It will encounter forces that we are simply not used to dealing with- it will essentially exist in all extreme temperatures, pressures, UV exposers etc- all at the same time. It will need to be a complex material with gradient like structures through elevation change- something which we are not very good at engineering- YET-

    As for the social implications- It has the potential to open up space to a much larger segment of the population. Providing an escape from our gravity well could and probably will inspire new creativity and art- and likely new professions in zero-G designer clothing, landscape, etc..

  7. To address the above Comments:
    1) Friction is not an issue in the same way it is for space shuttles. Also- it is really only an issue for when you are landing a space shuttle (not even taking off is fast enought to make an issue. Lastly, at higher elevations the air does move faster- but it is so much thinner (for the most part) that the actual physical force is negligent.

    2) Carbon is an element not a material. Everything from graphite, charcoal, to diamond is carbon. What one comment means is the new advances in carbon nanotubes- which do show incredible tensile strength/weight.

    3) Security issues are a concern- but the US already has hundreds of No Fly Zones- where we simply shoot down anything that comes close…I doubt you will see a plane flying anywhere near the space elevator. But it would be a major target for terrorists- think the security for a plane flight it tough? This would be brutal!

  8. Tim – realize what you just said –

    “The Space Elevator will happen. It simply makes sense. The physics involved are understandable.”

    Yeah, I’ll believe anything you say. You’ll have to try a bit harder if you want me to believe you. The other poster is being a bit more convincing. But I’m still leaning towards friction being a problem.

  9. The space elevator as church is undoubtedly an idea to contend with! As technology develops its Powers, religious imagination always follows it. You are so right to identify mysticism in the silence of space. I’ve been thinking about a science fiction story with just such a thing. Another medium: antennae. If I had a church I would put an enormous antenna on the top of it to gather as much of the flying energy going around as possible and translate it into projections of visible light, preferably on its own power. Since the cross, natural and mechanical power manifests in spiritual power for people.

    The Row Boat

  10. We can be sure of one thing– it can’t happen in Arizona. The point 36,000 km above Arizona is not on a stable orbit. The beanstalk has to be right on the equator.

    No, friction is not a big problem. The highest winds the thing has to deal with are those of the jet stream, and the ribbon is so narrow that wind loading is small relative to the tensile stresses. The ribbon may move around several miles, but you can probably appreciate that this is a small distance relative to the length of the thing.

    Carbon nanotubes still may not be good enough. Cosmic rays will knock apart individual bonds; micrometeors can sever bundles of tubes; airplanes and space debris could be even worse. We just don’t know.

    But it’s worth looking into, and has been since the idea first became popular decades ago. Eventually we’ll know.

    And if we can’t grow a beanstalk, we can still send a skyhook spinning through orbit with weights and grapples on both ends. Toss a small ship a hundred miles up from Florida or New Mexico at just the right moment (not into orbit, just “up” like SpaceShipOne), and as the end of the skyhook dips down, it grabs onto the ship and pulls it up. Let go a few minutes later and the ship is in orbit, the skyhook having lost some energy in the process. Reverse the process later to return to Earth, and the skyhook regains most of what it lost. If we land more mass than we send up– refined ore from the asteroid mines, let’s say– the skyhook can keep going forever.

    Science is fun!

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  11. There’s no technical reason why it’s impossible, only difficult; the problems are largely those of structural engineering. Now rockets, it’s amazing that those work–put a manned craft on top of an explosion.

    By the way, are you familiar with Dieste’s church architecture?

  12. I didn’t know about Dieste, but here’s one of his churches. Thanks for the tip.

    And the strength – or lack thereof – of carbon nanotubes over great distances is actually discussed in the New Scientist article; but, since the link is subscriber-only, it’s hard to incorporate that into the conversation…

    I like the skyhook idea. A lot.

  13. Peter N. Glaskowsky said…

    We can be sure of one thing– it can’t happen in Arizona. The point 36,000 km above Arizona is not on a stable orbit. The beanstalk has to be right on the equator.

    You’re right, Peter. However we can – and will, and have – tested some aspects of the system in Arizona. We’re also wrapping up a weeks-long test near the office in Bremerton for a customer who wants to use the system to broadcast wireless internet.

    I like skyhooks as well. They have their own problems, requiring rendevous with the tip of the hook at a precise moment in time/space. Nothing we can’t do, just difficult engineering.

    One problem with the skyhook is scale – the system doesn’t allow for expansion.

    We think a space elevator will. The first thing a rational operator will do with the first ribbon is use it to build another – now you’ve got a backup and a second system to bring online when traffic warrants. Got more traffic? Use Number 2 to build a third, and if needed that can be capable of carrying more tons at a time.

    Put it this way – our design goal is a 20 ton GVW system with 14 tons of carrying capacity. 14 tons to oribt, every seven days. Per ribbon.

    Now, yes, that’s the goal and it’s not a working system – we’re not sure that we can even _build_ one of these yet.

    But if no one works on it we’ll never know. At the end of the day (or in 2009, our goal for this phase) we’ll know one way or another if an SE is practical.

    I don’t think anyone is working on a skyhook with this much dedication.

    I’ve an interest in seeing a space elevator built, but I’m realistic. The goal is cheap space access. If it takes magical pink swans to make it happen, well that’s fine.

    But I can’t shake off how elegant a space elevator would be.

  14. Hey Brian – Good to have someone from LiftPort joining in. I’m with you on the elegance of the system, which is a beautiful idea, and I’d love to see it happen. The expandability of the project is also key: a site with multiple cables – 3, 4, 6, a dozen – would not only haul loads and loads of cargo into the sky, on a near-continual basis, but it would surely become some kind of modern tourist site. More interesting than Cape Canaveral.

    Anyway, just saying it’s a cool idea – good luck, magical pink swans or not. Next test-run or whatever, give me a holler. I’d love to write it up.

  15. Anyway, just saying it’s a cool idea – good luck, magical pink swans or not. Next test-run or whatever, give me a holler. I’d love to write it up.

    I’ll try and keep you in mind – and we’re wrapping up the current test in a week; I’ll get someone to post the washup on our blog.

    The best way to keep track of us – since there are many of you and only a few of us – is to subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed and our monthly newsletter. The latter is available as a form on our home page.

    Note – the monthly newsletter was in hiatus during the summer for technical reasons, we’re trying to get back in the swing of getting it published.

  16. fascinating that, of all the speculation you do here, this one gets such contentious comments. Is that because it is just at the border of possible right now. As if the scepticism reflects the fact that the problem is nearly solved.

  17. For a look at an interesting depiction, see Kim Stanley Robinson’s space elevator made of carbon nanotubes in his Mars Trilogy.

  18. I have a feeling that worshippers wouldn’t be too excited about an elevator-cathedral … it might feel too much like an amusement park ride. Also, don’t people like to have a little privacy where they worship? I’m just guessing on those points; it’s not something I know much about.

  19. If the chapels/elevators are made of glass, then, yes, privacy would be an issue, I assume.

    On the other hand, there are few places more private than an elevator once the doors close – provided you’re alone inside and you’re not being secretly filmed by some dude down in the lobby.

    Also, if the elevators aren’t moving at a hundred miles an hour, the amusement park feel might be avoided…

  20. It’s a neat idea. Nanotubes are indeed awesome, I think they are already talking about tensile strengths on the order of 150-300x that of steel and the science is in its infancy. Letting go of environmental factors for the moment, I wonder about some of the other issues involved.

    So we anchor this cable to an asteroid and send up the elevator. What resists the weight, or the tension caused by a sideways push by surface winds? Sure, there could be a big spool at the terminus, paying the line in and out as needed. But orbitally, there’s no friction to stop the pull from bringing the anchor down except for centrifugal force. If I remember my elementary astromechanics right if you pull it down here, 90° from here the increase in orbital velocity will cause it to orbit higher. You quickly deform your orbit, both in altitude and velocity. A mile here, a mile there— not much when you’re taking pictures but a hell of a difference to a tether.

  21. Why has religion got anything to do with a space elevator? why is prayer involved in the traveling either? ‘why in gods name’ would there be a floating cathedral? is everybody insane lol a pink swan would make more sense

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