A space elevator has been a long standing dream of many in the science and tech community. Conceived by Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895 and popularized by author Arthur C. Clarke, many believe the idea holds a great deal of real world promise, and may eventually provide the cheapest way to transport people and goods into space. With many countries such as Japan, the ESA, and the U.S. finally getting serious in a race to become the first nation to develop a space elevator, enthusiasm is at a high.
Unfortunately, though, much of the materials and methods needed to build such an elevator are infeasible. While carbon nanotubes could allow for a cable strong enough to hold a space elevator in theory, one key problem is how to propel the elevator along the cables into space.
Among the previously suggested methods of powering the climber into space were beaming microwave or laser power, or even concentrated solar power to the climber; but all these efforts have a long ways to go before being close to being feasible.
However, a remarkably simple idea proposed at the Second International Conference on Space Elevator and Tether Design in Luxembourg could hold the key to powering the space elevator. European Space Agency ground station engineer Age-Raymond Riise showcased a remarkably simple propulsion method which uses a series of rhythmic jerks to propel a device upwards along a taut cable.
For his demo he tied brushes with their bristles pointing down, representing the elevator cabs around the broom stick, representing the elevator cable. As the brushes pointed downward, they required less force to slide up than to slide down. The assembly slid up and down along the broomstick, but experienced a net upwards motion, slowly climbing to the top of the broomstick.
The novel new method holds great promise as similar jerking motion could be applied to raise the elevator on a full-sized design, in theory. The key technical challenge would be designing a cable strong enough to withstand the heat and forces exerted on it by the atmosphere.
However, advocates argue that with payload costs still remarkably high, the financial and social incentives for building a space elevator are enormous.
Building a space elevator could enable novel new industries. Describes Benoit Michel of the Catholic University of Leuven, a conference attendee, "From my point of view, the space elevator project is important because it enables a far more directly useful project - installation of large space solar power satellites around the Earth to provide continuous, cheap, CO2-neutral, environmentally friendly energy. I firmly believe that the next century will have a large space-based industry and that industry will be the main energy provider for the whole mankind."
Mr. Riise has been approached by commercial aerospace terms about his idea and is in talks with them over terms.