A Japanese artist's rendition of the anchor platform that would rest at the bottom of the elevator.  (Source: The Times Online)
Will Japan be the winner of the space elevator race?

From wallet cell-phones to robotic maids, Japan has seemingly been one step ahead of the U.S. in hot technology for the last couple decades.  The hottest products in the U.S., like the iPhone, are passé in Japan.

Perhaps, it is not surprising that Japan is looking beat the U.S. to become the first to construct a space elevator.  While the U.S. still struggles, trying to devise a better rocket-launched space plane, Japan is considering becoming the first to bypass traditional launches, in the process saving time, money, and energy.  While Japan's top tech gurus have certainly had their share of flops in both research and commercial offerings, they're looking to make the space elevator one of the many success stories.

The idea of a space elevator, popular fodder for science fiction writers, was brought to the masses by one of the fathers of science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke in a 1979 book, The Fountains of Paradise.  Since, scientists have begun to understand that the idea has great merit as, unlike most science fiction devices, it does not rely on exotic or undiscovered physics, but delivers very real gains.  Space elevators could take away much of the danger of shuttle launches, and could carry cargo using less than a hundredth of the energy used by a space shuttle.  A space elevator would open civilian space travel, and would allow vast amounts of cargo to be transported in space, paving the way for large space stations or moon bases.

Shuichi Ono, chairman of the Japan Space Elevator Association describes, "Just like travelling abroad, anyone will be able to ride the elevator into space."

Mr. Ono is working with Japan's top researchers to actualize the tech.  The challenge is daunting.  The greatest obstacle is that the elevator will require cables made of composite materials stronger and lighter than any material yet woven.  These cables will be 22,000 mile-long (36,000km) and will be anchored to the ground and to geosynchronous satellites in orbit.  Another key challenge will be developing elevator carriages to ride on these cables.  These carriages must be capable of climbing the cables and be shielded to keep the passengers safe.  According to Mr. Ono, the elevator organization has the support of some of Japan's biggest companies, who are helping to design the carriages.

Japan's experts claim they will soon have a space elevator.  And they claim they will be able to do it on a bafflingly low budget -- a trillion yen ($9.5B USD).  However, the claim is slightly more believable when you consider Japan's leadership in precision engineering and material science.

Japan's big textile companies are focusing on developing mass-producing carbon nanotube sheets and ribbons, which will be a likely candidate for the elevator cables due to their ideal strength, flexibility, and light weight.  Nanotube cables could survive the heat, electrical discharges, and physical collisions that might occur in the atmosphere and at the lower reaches of space.

Yoshio Aoki, a professor of precision machinery engineering at Nihon University and a director of the Japan Space Elevator Association says that the carbon nanotube cable would have to be four times stronger than the strongest nanotubes currently available, which are 180 times stronger than steel.  However, he's confident this strength will soon be achieved as strength has been increased 100 times in the last 5 years.

As to the carriages, Aoki says that he and his colleagues already have plans.  He states, "We are thinking of using the technology employed in our bullet trains.  Carbon nanotubes are good conductors of electricity, so we are thinking of having a second cable to provide power all along the route."

Japan's top researchers are hosting an international conference in November, which they hope to draw up a timetable for the project at.

In the U.S., various private firms have been working on the tech as has NASA, though it has had relatively little progress and is underfunded.  There's a running space elevator competition, but thus far no company has met the basic criteria to be declared a victor.

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