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Japan in the Space Elevator race
September 27, 2008 9:41 PM   Subscribe

Japan is showing renewed interest as another contender in the race to build the world's first space elevator. Japanese scientists believe they can complete the project with an optimistic trillion yen budget, and are sponsoring an international conference (no English) this November to draw up a timetable.

After recent Elevator:2010 competitions (previously), of which no entries have yet managed to claim prize money, and ongoing efforts from NASA, and private investors, we'll see if Japan can up the game in the coming months.

More info on the Japan conference, and other upcoming international events at the Space Elevator Blog.
posted by p3t3 (60 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
That's one elevator you don't wanna get stuck in...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:17 PM on September 27, 2008 [4 favorites]


Why is it so much higher up (62,000 mi) than a geostationary orbit (21,000 mi)? Wouldn't it lag way behind and get pulled down by the anchor?
posted by cowbellemoo at 10:27 PM on September 27, 2008


Oh, I get it. (I think). The speed is made up by having the anchor tug on the satellite, right?
posted by cowbellemoo at 10:32 PM on September 27, 2008


テロリストに対して守る方法か。
posted by longsleeves at 10:35 PM on September 27, 2008


Thanks! I liked the elevator made out of legos!
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 10:35 PM on September 27, 2008


cowbellemoo: yeah, the satellite is acting as a counterweight.

A trillion yen? That's, um, ten billion USD, if they're using American trillions. You're saying we could build seventy space elevators for the price of the bailout?
posted by hattifattener at 10:43 PM on September 27, 2008 [20 favorites]


「一億円」とは、「すごいかねがかかる」覚えれますが。
posted by troy at 10:43 PM on September 27, 2008


What hattifattener said. A million yen isn't very much at all in science-shaking mega-project terms.
posted by bardic at 10:44 PM on September 27, 2008


To hell with the space elevator, I just wish they'd bring the express checkout line to the grocery stores here.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:45 PM on September 27, 2008


I don't think I'd mind devastating financial collapse if I get a space elevator. I'm writing my Senator.
posted by jnaps at 10:49 PM on September 27, 2008


I just wish they'd bring the express checkout line to the grocery stores here.

For the first time, I finally saw self check-out machines at a Japanese grocery store this month.

And with the trillion/10 billion$$ - I still doubt they'll complete the project on budget, but if it's even in the right ballpark, maybe the US should lower the bailout to 600B, and toss a few space elevators in the deal too!
posted by p3t3 at 10:53 PM on September 27, 2008


The Kansai airport cost about two trillion yen. When I heard that I made my first (and last) pun in Japanese:

「一石、二兆」
posted by troy at 11:06 PM on September 27, 2008


troy: (笑)
posted by greasepig at 11:11 PM on September 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Just say NO to Space Elevators!
posted by garethspor at 11:28 PM on September 27, 2008


I just wish they'd bring the express checkout line to the grocery stores here.

That's funny, because I just stood in line an extra 5 minutes (along with all the people it takes to make a line 5 minutes long), just to avoid using the express checkout at Canadian Tire.
posted by Chuckles at 11:32 PM on September 27, 2008


Even more mind blowing is the fact that Bill Gates could build one with the spare change in his couch.

Microsoft = Haden Industries.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:33 PM on September 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


You're saying we could build seventy space elevators for the price of the bailout?

more than 70, I'd think - much of the cost of the first is getting the parts into space... once the first is operational you can use it instead of rockets to heft your building material into orbit...
posted by russm at 11:37 PM on September 27, 2008


Arthur C. Clarke said: "a space elevator would only be built about 50 years after everyone stops laughing".

Judging by the comments, we've got at least half a century to go.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:20 AM on September 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars has an interesting description of what happens if the cable breaks. Hint: don't be anywhere near where it's going to hit, and remember it's long enough to go all the way around the planet a few times. Though that's if it breaks pretty high up. The lower the break, the more cable will simply be whipped out of the atmosphere and into space by the orbital force of the counterweight.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:25 AM on September 28, 2008


Yeah, built the world's tallest structure in the most earthquake-prone area of the planet. Now THAT'S a good idea!
posted by Kickstart70 at 12:34 AM on September 28, 2008


George_Spiggott: "Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars has an interesting description of what happens if the cable breaks. Hint: don't be anywhere near where it's going to hit, and remember it's long enough to go all the way around the planet a few times. Though that's if it breaks pretty high up. The lower the break, the more cable will simply be whipped out of the atmosphere and into space by the orbital force of the counterweight."

From what I understand, the weight of the cable (1kg per km) and air resistance make the force of a carbon nanotube cable hitting the ground equivalent to a falling piece of paper. and that some of this cable would also burn up in the atmosphere. But this is all [citation needed] on wikipedia, so don't take my word for it.
posted by grandsham at 12:41 AM on September 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


But this is all [citation needed] on wikipedia, so don't take my word for it.

grandsham, wikipedia is by definition and even by policy, exactly as credible as its cites, and if it has them it would make more sense to link those. This article didn't have them. But I'll admit it it sounds plausible for a hypothetical material with the profile and strength-to-weight ratio described, and the links presented here are optimistic about its eventual creation. But citing a wikipedia article (assuming you meant the one I typed in, as you didn't link it), particularly one full of {fact} tags may be useful to describe an argument (it saves on typing, anyway) but certainly not to support one.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:05 AM on September 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Grandsham is right. If I remember right, the space elevator described in Red Mars is not the paper-thin cable we envision today, but a much thicker structure composed of diamonds (?) and stuff.
posted by Hollow at 1:12 AM on September 28, 2008


That seems awfully cheap. As in, cheap enough that private enterprise could build one, which I imagine would be insanely profitable once in operation.

Aren't they going to use Sinclair Molecule Chain to hold it up?
posted by maxwelton at 1:14 AM on September 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


When I heard this on the radio the other day they mentioned it had ceased being a "research breakthrough needed" problem,and become a difficult engineering issue. They mentioned the carbon non tubes needed to be about 4 times stronger than the best currently available, but pointed out these had increased in strength a hundred times in the last decade.
I am very pleased that it is Japan driving this. While NASA has obviously led the world into space, they have become so politicised that I would have little faith they could complete such a mission.
posted by bystander at 1:23 AM on September 28, 2008


Yeah, built the world's tallest structure in the most earthquake-prone area of the planet. Now THAT'S a good idea!

They can't build it in Japan. They have to build it on the equator. That's the only place a geostationary orbit is possible. Otherwise it has to cross the equator twice per orbit.

Every time I've heard any talk about this the idea has been to base it on some equatorial pacific island. This has the benefit that if the cable breaks and falls to earth, it mostly hits unpopulated open water.

I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around this. If the cable broke, would it fall East, West, or just down?
posted by aubilenon at 1:35 AM on September 28, 2008


The most interesting part will be to see how they will deploy that cable...knowing that to escape the gravity of the Earth you need to have a speed of 8 km/s.
posted by mg1313 at 1:54 AM on September 28, 2008


West, for the portion above the break, down for the rest.
posted by pompomtom at 1:54 AM on September 28, 2008


This should be the official elevator music:
Let's build a stairway to the stars . . .
posted by D.C. at 2:05 AM on September 28, 2008


If the cable broke, would it fall East, West, or just down?

Well, both the WTC towers fell straight down.

Course, that was cause they were imploded...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:19 AM on September 28, 2008


Do it do it do it do it do it. Do it!

Aside from the whole "making orbital development wonderfully cheap" angle, a space tether, like mass-market holography or a moon colony, is just one of those futuristic things that would be nice to have around as a clear, unambiguous sign that you're living in The Future. If you're ever uncertain you can just jet to the anchor, look up, and say "Carbon nanotube cable stretching twinelike into the reaches of space, gotcha." Besides, no self-respecting species can call itself spacefaring without one.

also, maybe if one existed they would let me take a ride on it and that would be so cool

aubilenon: "I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around this. If the cable broke, would it fall East, West, or just down?"

Animation of a Broken Space Elevator
posted by Rhaomi at 3:32 AM on September 28, 2008 [3 favorites]


world's tallest structure

that'll shut up the architects.

also, space elevator + hadron colliding black hole maker = penis vagina jokes on cosmic scale
posted by doobiedoo at 4:27 AM on September 28, 2008


Earth might not be the planet you can build a functional space elevator on, as described. The tensile strength required seems to be just a bit beyond the high end of theoretical calculations of flawless carbon nanotubes. Mars, that might work. On Earth, though, we'd need something better than carbon nanotubes. It's not like we have a source of scrith handy, so alternatives should be considered if we wish to have a shot at this.

I see dynamic structures, like the "space fountain," as having a better chance of success. Maybe with a launch loop for backup.
posted by adipocere at 5:28 AM on September 28, 2008


Hint: don't be anywhere near where it's going to hit,

That's good general knowledge too.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:39 AM on September 28, 2008


New Mombasa - NEVAH FORGET.
posted by panboi at 5:55 AM on September 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


I saw a study on the estimated cost of a surface to orbit catapult not too long back. It put the price as "between 2 and 20 billion" with operational costs under 100 million per year. That was for a 1 meter diameter 5 meter long launch vehicle.

I find it difficult to believe that you could build a space elevator for around the same price as the high end estimate of a catapult. Not saying that the Japanese scientists are wrong, just suggesting that maybe the translator messed up and dropped a decimal or something.
posted by sotonohito at 6:21 AM on September 28, 2008


Small world, panboi -- I actually wrote the bulk of that article. I always loved the space elevator concept as seen in the Halo series; it's a great example of Bungie inserting little details into the background of their games that help to create this feeling of a cohesive universe.

The New Mombasa elevator also plays a cameo role in the teaser for their next project, an unnamed combat game set in the city. And I think it's likely, given what's seen in the video, that the elevator will collapse at some point in the campaign -- an epic set piece, indeed.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:21 AM on September 28, 2008


let's build this shit and then a Dyson Sphere. We are in teh future!!11! we need to be more awesome. Seriously.
posted by darkripper at 7:22 AM on September 28, 2008


mg1313: The most interesting part will be to see how they will deploy that cable...knowing that to escape the gravity of the Earth you need to have a speed of 8 km/s.

This is a common misunderstanding about escape velocity. 8 km/s is the required instantaneous velocity that a projectile heading straight up at sea level needs to escape the pull of earth's gravity, assuming that no additional force in the spaceward direction is applied. The fact is, rockets can escape the earth's gravity well despite not reaching escape velocity, because additional force is continually applied. A rocket could escape the earth's gravity well at walking speed, assuming a continuous application of force. Note that the force needed becomes smaller exponentially with increasing distance from the center of gravity, so that at some point a good shove would be sufficient to escape earth's gravity.

That said, the cable will certainly travel quickly, but not at 8000 m/sec. Also, note that escape velocity is more like 11.2 km/sec at sea level, not 8 km/sec. Note that the Space Shuttle, a fast friggin rocket ship, hits a max velocity less than 5 mi/sec, substantially below escape velocity, and that it reaches this speed in a low-g environment:

The Space Shuttle speed goes from 0 mph to 17,500 mph in 8.5 minutes (this is when the external fuel tank separates from the Shuttle). Two minutes after launch the solid rocket boosters separate; at this time the speed is 3,438 mph and increasing rapidly. While in orbit the Shuttle's speed is 17,500 mph.
Source.
posted by Mister_A at 7:49 AM on September 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


Note that the Space Shuttle, a fast friggin rocket ship, hits a max velocity less than 5 mi/sec, substantially below escape velocity,

5 mi/sec is 8 km/sec.
posted by dmd at 7:56 AM on September 28, 2008


I think you install the cable by putting the anchor in geostationary orbit and then dropping the cable down from orbit. Then you push the anchor out a bit further and it starts to pull on the cable...
posted by autodidact at 8:09 AM on September 28, 2008


Due to the incredible length and weight, the cable needs to be stronger than any currently existing cable made... So it's premature to be estimating the price.
posted by uni verse at 8:36 AM on September 28, 2008


monkey asks, why take an elevator to space? mankind shocked
posted by yonation at 8:45 AM on September 28, 2008


Oh, Mr Tyler! Going down?
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:08 AM on September 28, 2008


5 mi/sec is 8 km/sec.

And neither of these is the Earthican escape velocity , if that's what you're getting at.
posted by Mister_A at 9:14 AM on September 28, 2008


But what happens when the space colonies want to break away from Earth? Or what happens when 50 foot aliens show up? Or space bounty hunters with genetically engineered dogs and JKD skills? Huh? What then?
posted by wuwei at 9:33 AM on September 28, 2008


That the concept of the space elevator is even conceivable for the near future honestly blows my mind. I feel like I'm living in a sci-fi novel. If they--the Japanese, whoever--can make this happen, I will have far more hope for the future than any political speech about "change" could give me.
posted by misha at 9:43 AM on September 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


wuwei, those bitches will be wrapped around our fingers, as we control the spice. Just ask a guild navigator.
posted by Mister_A at 9:44 AM on September 28, 2008


aubilenon, the LiftPort guys (who are basically in the business of space elevator boosterism and tech investment in the US) have a plan where the bottom end connects to a specially designed boat in a particularly storm-free patch of equatorial ocean. You don't need an anetire island; the tension at the bottom of the cable is theoretically zero (in practice, you'd probably arrange for it to be nonzero but small). They also propose being able to detach the bottom end and lift it out of the troposphere if necessary.

Re breakage, I've read an analysis that argues that the shockwave as the tension lets off would release more than enough energy to pulverize the cable as it passes, so you'd end up with lots of dust and fragments in eccentric equatorial orbits, rather than a Red Mars-style swath of destruction. Depends on the cable material, I suppose.

adipocere, where do you get that? The interesting thing about log-taper cables is there isn't really a hard "required strength" for the material. You could build a space elevator out of today's commercially available kevlar composite, it would just take an absurdly impractical amount of material.
posted by hattifattener at 10:21 AM on September 28, 2008


hattifattener : what are log-taper cables? But keep in mind the amount of material to bring up will be initially limited by very expensive rocket launches with low weight limits (and cargo space limits), and in space there will be very intense (time-expensive) assembly conditions, so it seems more efficient to use less material which is more dense (nano-constructed).
This will also lighten the cable creating less stress and inertia in deployment so breakage is less likely.
posted by uni verse at 11:26 AM on September 28, 2008


^_^
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:14 PM on September 28, 2008


I'm dubious. We're talking about a cable (or braid of cables) that can never break. Everything breaks sooner or later, and whether or not it breaks on us or on our great-grandkids, eventually entropy will win out. A cable, even a thin one, slapping down--wrapping itself around the globe at supersonic speeds--would wreak havoc in any populated area it hits.

I suppose we can build one now with the nanotube technology we have now and it could be replaced in future generations, but even if everything is 100% hunky dory at the launch, that cable ain't gonna last forever. And I'm just talking about natural wear and tear, that doesn't even cover true mishaps or sabotage.

No, no one peed in my Cheerios this morning, I'm just sayin'.
posted by zardoz at 5:03 PM on September 28, 2008


One link says that the ribbons are 22,000 miles into space and the other says 62,000 miles. I wonder how they arrived at those figures and what determines the length.
posted by Brian B. at 5:31 PM on September 28, 2008


eventually entropy will win out. A cable, even a thin one, slapping down--wrapping itself around the globe at supersonic speeds--would wreak havoc in any populated area it hits.

well, it depends.. The speed of propogation around the earth doesn't really matter much, I don't think. The vertical speed matters, but as some have said up thread, the cable might turn out to be light and slow enough to not have much impact. Also, you could make it self destructive.. In case of failure, explosively break the cable at key locations, or even vaporize the whole thing at once.
posted by Chuckles at 6:07 PM on September 28, 2008


Wow. A surpirsing* number of commentors on the timesonline site are snarking along the lines of: 'Why bother? There's nothing to see up there anyway'

* I forgot, for a moment, that the average IQ of the internet has been in freefall since 1979
posted by JustAsItSounds at 8:19 PM on September 28, 2008


The first country to build this wins. Game over everyone else. They will OWN space.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:27 PM on September 28, 2008


Well, the elevator music better be Sun Ra, or their ass got tah GO!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:53 PM on September 28, 2008


zardoz writes "that doesn't even cover true mishaps or sabotage."

Ben Bova, Mercury

Let's just say that it sounds like a great idea, but you don't want to be the one in charge if it breaks.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:16 AM on September 29, 2008


Nobody's gonna own space. Space is big.
posted by autodidact at 6:52 AM on September 29, 2008


Fair enough, autodidact. But, just like all real estate, it is also a positional good.
posted by Chuckles at 9:51 AM on September 29, 2008


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