The space elevator has been a dream of scientists and engineers for many years. The concept is simple: instead of using rockets to send payloads into orbit, we build a giant tower that reaches all the way to space. Then we attach a cable to the tower and use it to lift payloads into orbit.
The benefits of a space elevator are numerous. It would be much cheaper than launching rockets, it would be reusable, and it would produce no pollution. But the biggest benefit is that it would make accessing space easier than ever before.
So can we build a space elevator in the next 25 years? Let’s take a look at what we need and what we have.
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What We Need
There are two main challenges that need to be overcome in order to build a space elevator: building the tower and attaching the cable.
Building the Elevator
The first challenge is building the elevator itself. The tallest human-made structure in the world today is Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which stands at 2,717 feet (828 meters). To put this in context, if we wanted to build a space elevator that only goes to low Earth orbit (LEO), which is about 200 miles (320 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface, we would need to build 320 Burj Khalifas stacked on top of each other.
And if we want our elevator to reach geostationary orbit (GEO), which is 22,236 miles (35,786 kilometers) above Earth’s surface, our tower would need to be nearly 35,786 kilometers! But you must also understand that we do not need to construct entire buildings or towers 35,786 kilometres long; rather, we only need to construct a cable that long, which is clearly not as difficult as constructing the entire Burj Kalifa that long. But still, it is very difficult to even build a cable strong enough to handle the pressure, and this is not possible without a major breakthrough in this area.
However, there are several proposed solutions for building extremely tall cables on Earth that could one day make space elevators possible. These include using nanotechnology to create cables. With continued research and development in these areas, it may one day be possible to build an extremely tall structure on Earth capable of reaching all the way into space.
Attaching the cable
The second challenge is attaching the cable from our tower all the way up into space. This presents two problems. First, how do we support such an incredibly long cable? Second, how do we keep the space debris from crashing against each other and breaking down? Solutions to these problems have also been proposed, but they remain largely untested and unproven at this time.
One suggestion is to use carbon nanotubes for both the strength and flexibility required for an orbital cable, and make a station as a counterbalance at the end of the cable. More research will need to be done in these areas before any definitive conclusions can be drawn, but there remains hope that one day these technologies will mature enough to allow for the construction of a space elevator.
So, can we build a space elevator in the next 25 years? While we do not yet have all of the necessary technologies, we are making significant progress, and it may one day be possible to turn this dream into reality; it is unlikely that we will be able to build a space elevator in 25 years, but it may be more feasible in 50 to 80 years.