Is This The Final Technical Piece We Need For The Space Elevator? | Forbes

The great problem in exploiting space is in getting up out of the Earth’s gravity well. As the man once pointed out, when you’re in orbit you’re not halfway to the Moon, you’re halfway to anywhere.

And our technologies of how to get out of that gravity well are really rather primitive. Being primitive makes them inefficient. Sure, Space X and the like are making them better. But we’re still basically lighting a vast amount of feul to get an aluminium tube up there. It’s just never going to be true that using this rocket technology we’ll end up with space being a cheap and everyday sort of thing. It’s just not possible, within the confines of rocketry, to make it cheap enough for that.

There’s also a marked lack of any even plausible theory as to how anti-gravity might exist. So we’re rather on the lookout for something else. And it’s been pointed out for decades that that something else could be a space elevator. Essentially, deliver an asteroid into Earth orbit and drop a wire down from it. Fox the wire to the ground and then you can climb the wire as an elevator does inside a building. Once done this is cheap and efficient and it brings the costs of getting into space right down. Excellent.

However, the problem has always been that we just don’t have the material to make that wire. Nothing at all that is strong enough to not break simply under its own weight. It has been thought for some time that carbon nanotubes might be able to do it. But no one knew how to make wire out of them. Until now:

An international team of scientists has successfully found a way to spin tens of millions of carbon nanotubes into a flexible conductive thread that’s a quarter of the thickness of human hair.

“We finally have a nanotube fiber with properties that don’t exist in any other material,” said lead researcher Matteo Pasquali of Rice University. “It looks like black cotton thread but behaves like both metal wires and strong carbon fibers.”

The thread has ten times the tensile strength of steel and is as conductive as copper, but is flexible enough to be wound around a spool or woven.

If you can wind it or weave it then you can certainly spin it into a cable. And that really might just be the last piece of the puzzle we need to build that desired space elevator.

It would certainly be an engineering challenge to build, this is true. But there’s, assuming this cable is indeed strong enough, no theoretical reason why it couldn’t be built, nor financial. And building one would indeed open up at the very least the inner solar system to us. For it really is true that the major cost and difficulty of doing so is getting the first 50 miles off the planet. If you can do that cheaply then there’s a vast opportunity out there.

OK, maybe this doesn’t excite you like it does me: I’d say that if this is so you obviously didn’t read enough science fiction as a teenager. Or perhaps I read too much, either way.



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