Imagination breeds technology, and the process is reciprocal. What can be conceived can be built, and once something is built, even more can be conceived of. Michael Laine is the president of LiftPort Group, a private organization that grew out of a two-year NASA research study (2001 and 2003). The study began looking at an Earth elevator, conceived as a station within a low Earth orbit (about 100,000 km away from our planet) tethered or anchored to the earth with a line or lines on which large “robot” elevators would climb, shuttling materials and people back and forth. It turns out that we are still not advanced enough technologically to build this, although scientists still believe it is not that far off, but a moon elevator may be within reach. Laine and his team believe that with the funding they can have this built within the next eight years.
Initially LiftPort worked on research to do with carbon nanotubes (CNTs), currently assumed to be the world’s strongest material. According to Laine, the team was not so successful with that venture. However between 2004 and 2007 they worked on building climbing robots, and had much more success with this. Using tethered balloons and a climbing rope, the team got a robot to climb about one mile, just a quarter mile short of their goal. One trick in having anything ascend that far into the sky off of Earth is how and where to navigate airspace. Involvement and approval is needed from the FAA, Air Force and Navy with regards to air-space use up that high.
Around 2007 the team consisted of over 800 volunteers and roughly 60 research partners from various universities. When the economy crashed that year, LiftPort lost everything, and had a five-year hiatus. On August 23, 2012, Laine began a Kickstarter campaign to raise, he says, a community once more. The initial team had of course found work elsewhere by this point. LiftPort needed a new team and new materials, as in just five years technology can vastly change and improve. For the initial Kickstarter campaign (he says there will be several, at least), the company’s aim was to reach only an $8,000 goal, just enough to garner some publicity and support for the project. That goal was reached within three weeks and was greatly surpassed not long after. They have to date raised $110,353 on this one campaign.
The Lunar Space Elevator Infrastructure (LSEI), or Elsie, as it is nicknamed, is shown in video animation on LiftPort’s Kickstarter page, along with all sorts of other technical drawings and diagrams to give the viewer a more concrete idea of the concept. Basically though, the end result would be a rocket shipping people and materials from Earth to a landing station within two to five kilometers of the moon’s surface, depending on research, testing and feasibility studies. Once at the landing station, everything would be transferred to the elevator which would travel down the line to the moon, where it would be able to have a soft landing.
Currently, landing on the moon without destroying the spacecraft (and harming people within) is extremely expensive; this is called a “soft landing,” and requires extreme amounts of fuel and massive amounts of thrust to be able to approach any surface slowly enough to avoid impact. This is why there have not been more Earth-to-moon voyages over the years. The moon has therefore not been within realistic reach for humankind to exploit its resources (there are many sought-after elements on the moon, a costly one that is short here on Earth being helium-3). Attaining these resources from the moon without the lunar elevator is therefore also too costly, but with it, the expenses of lunar landings are reduced “sixfold,” or more than 83%. This would mean the expense of mining on the moon would no longer be prohibitive.
Anchoring to the moon’s surface is simply conceived of, with the set-up involving, from the distance of the landing station, a ribbon-shaped cable being aimed at a high speed at the surface. Upon contact a three-pronged base would unfold and giant motorized screws that look like massive drill bits would then be drilled down into the moon’s surface, anchoring the tether to the landing station. Elsie, the climbing vehicle, would then be able to scurry back and forth between the two locations, easily making soft landings on the moon.
This concept appeared in literature over 119 years ago, with Russian author Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s Speculations About Earth and Sky and on Vesta. At that time, neither an elevator nor a tower to the moon was remotely feasible, yet with the help of a rocket ride, it may now be within reach.
By Julie Mahfood
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