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ZOMG MY SPACE ELEVATOR BROKE!
January 7, 2009 8:53 AM   Subscribe

Space elevator just broke? Wondering what's going to happen? Wonder no more!
posted by Lord_Pall (60 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
I read Red Mars. I don't wonder.
posted by Plutor at 8:56 AM on January 7, 2009 [8 favorites]


Cool. Can anyone remind me which was the right scenario for *ROT13-ed spoiler alert*: Xvz Fgnayrl Ebovafba'f Znef Gevybtl fcnpr ryringbe penfu?
posted by bonecrusher at 8:56 AM on January 7, 2009


Well, rot13-ing is now unnecessary, so which one is the right one for Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy space elevator crash?
posted by bonecrusher at 8:57 AM on January 7, 2009


Did this guy use the targeting computers from the Millennium Falcon to create his animations?
posted by bondcliff at 9:01 AM on January 7, 2009 [15 favorites]


This is what the web is for.
posted by grumblebee at 9:02 AM on January 7, 2009


Alternative title for this post: Why A Space Elevator Will Never And Should Never Be Built

Although I guess you could mount the bottom using explosive bolts or something so you can fling it free before it DESTROYS ALL LIFE.
posted by DU at 9:07 AM on January 7, 2009


Yi. I once had an upright bass string snap on me and the 3300 pounds of pressure needed to keep it taut made the free end move in a brisk and interesting fashion. I suppose this would be worse.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:11 AM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, man. I love the simple wire frame illustrations. It's like reading a haiku; you're only taking in a very simple, undetailed image through your eyes, but your mind instaneously fills with imagery of HORRIBLE CARBON-FIBER DESTRUCTION RAINING DOWN ON ALL HUMANS EVERYWHERE

This post is swell!
posted by Greg Nog at 9:14 AM on January 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


bondcliff, I thought it looked like the animated Death Star going 'round the forest moon of Endor.

(And yes, "It's a trap!")
posted by fijiwriter at 9:15 AM on January 7, 2009


Yeah, but the "shaft" is only a few metres wide, right? I'm willing to take that chance!

What if we built it off the tip of Argentina? Or would this sucker cause a massive tidal wave?

I say us me-fites should censor this information before the Religious Right gets a hold of it. Better yet, we'll build it so it falls directly through the Bible Belt.
posted by Brodiggitty at 9:15 AM on January 7, 2009


What if we built it off the tip of Argentina?

Which tip of Argentina is directly on the equator?

But good point on the "few meters wide". That, coupled with burning up on reentry, might make us safe.
posted by DU at 9:23 AM on January 7, 2009


I hate to disappoint you people, but if the space elevator breaks, there isn't going to be a horrible rain of carbon-fiber destruction. Unfortunately, there will be no no global catastrophe either.

As the people who actually bothered to read the notes would have seen, this simulation doesn't take into account atmospheric effects. That means that any lengths longer than 200 miles will burn up in the atmosphere. And given the narrow width of the elevator, even the 200 mile long path of destruction will be pretty limited, especially when one considers the locations a space elevator can be built.

A bigger problem with the space elevator has always been that it's going to cross the orbital paths of nearly all satellites that aren't in geosynchronous orbit. this will make the elevator a major pain for the commercial space industry, and the various lawsuits and injunctions would probably kill the project before anything’s built.
posted by happyroach at 9:24 AM on January 7, 2009 [6 favorites]


At the very bottom of the first link: "So far no atmospheric effects are considered. The elevator will probably start burning up on re-entry at some point. "

Gee, you think?

On preview, what happyroach said.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:32 AM on January 7, 2009


Which tip of Argentina is directly on the equator?

Good point. Non-physicist here. I get it now. (removing foot from mouth)
posted by Brodiggitty at 9:36 AM on January 7, 2009


this will make the elevator a major pain for the commercial space industry, and the various lawsuits and injunctions would probably kill the project before anything’s built.

A major pain, except for reducing their costs by 100x. Although "reduced cost business model" didn't prevent the music industry from going the lawsuits and injunctions route, so you may have a point.

(Before you tell me: I realize that LEO is different than GEO.)
posted by DU at 9:40 AM on January 7, 2009


Previously.
posted by Mister_A at 9:46 AM on January 7, 2009


before it DESTROYS ALL LIFE

Practical considerations aside, this would make a pretty awesome scene in a Bruckheimer project. Elevator, the film could be called, and this five minute effects sequence in the first act would be as awesome as it would be ridiculous.
posted by cortex at 9:47 AM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Michael Bay presents:
OTIS.

Filmed in Jitter-Blur Vision™! So you can't tell what's going on, just that it's going on and on, racking up impressive expenditures.
posted by Mister_A at 9:52 AM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


If the elevator ever gets built, I wonder what kind of music will play inside it.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 9:54 AM on January 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think this movie is a go. Isn't Hillary Swank due for a crappy movie? She can play the lone scientist who thinks the elevator is about to collapse and must race to its top to save the love of her life.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:58 AM on January 7, 2009


I wonder what kind of music will play inside it.

The Girl from Ipanema, of course. [WARNING: MIDI]
posted by tomierna at 9:59 AM on January 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Love in an Elevator". Viagra shares will skyrocket.
posted by Dumsnill at 9:59 AM on January 7, 2009


Kiss your sassafras.

OTIS.

Touche, sir.
posted by cortex at 10:01 AM on January 7, 2009


Another disadvantage is that if more than one of these marvels is ever built, the failure of one could potentially knock down others further around the globe.

Also: terrorism.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:08 AM on January 7, 2009


I like Cortex's idea... take a scene like is described in Red Mars, and turn it into a special effects scene in a movie. Done well, I'd see it no matter how bad the movie is!

However, on a more realistic note, the space elevator cable designs that seem to be the most likely at this point in time sound like they'd be thin, wide nanotube ribbons. So instead of some huge cable crashing down, it would more likely be a massive ribbon slowly floating down.
posted by evilangela at 10:21 AM on January 7, 2009


I've long wondered just how you build the thing. How do you connect the cable between the counterweight and the anchorage in the first place?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:25 AM on January 7, 2009


It's always fun to think of the worst that could happen, but it's usually the little, more common issues that doom a project:

1) Almost no one could afford the astronomical price of tipping the space elevator operator
2) Everytime the space elevator gets stuck, at least one of the passengers winds up getting eaten before maintenance can get them out
3) Death by flatulence
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:26 AM on January 7, 2009


4) That awkward non-conversation when you realize you took the same elevator as your ex-girlfriend.
posted by explosion at 10:40 AM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


There would be no problem with damage or cleanup if the space elevator were made with woven bacon.
Soft, strong, and stretchy--and if it did break, the fragments would come down in all degrees of doneness.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:47 AM on January 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


"A major pain, except for reducing their costs by 100x. Although "reduced cost business model" didn't prevent the music industry from going the lawsuits and injunctions route, so you may have a point."

It's more the point that it would reduce "overall costs" of getting into orbit (though not by 100%; amortization of the costs of building the sucker will lead to not-insignificant usage fees), but for the people who already have satellites in orbit, and who have money invested in putting things into orbit, the effects will be disasterous.

Also, there are a lot of satellite applications that can't simply be replaced by a platform at geosynchrous orbit; the people who depend on close-orbit or non-equatorial orbiting satellites will be screwed over as well.

Now, theoretically, it would be possible to arrange orbits so that the orbits of say,incline or eliptical orbiting satellites will miss the orbital elevator, though to do that for every orbit is a non-trivial task. And of course that would be a logistical and liability nightmare.
posted by happyroach at 10:55 AM on January 7, 2009


5) The boss's kid hits every button then runs out the door, and the elevator spends the next ten years stopping on every story on the way up.
posted by Riki tiki at 11:00 AM on January 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


6) There's a fire alarm and you have to take the stairs.
posted by Mister_A at 11:05 AM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Which tip of Argentina is directly on the equator?

Obviously the key to the success of space elevator is moving the entire country of Argentina into a thin band around the equator.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:09 AM on January 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


That means that any lengths longer than 200 miles will burn up in the atmosphere.

I wouldn't automatically make that assumption. I can point to one carbon form that I can prove will survive reentry -- the reinforced carbon-carbon tiles on the leading edge of the Space Shuttle's wings, where the thermal load is so high that the normal thermal tiles on the shuttle cannot handle it.

Automatically assuming that the epoxy holding the carbon nanotubes will melt is a mistake, because we cannot use current epoxies in a space elevator without making the elevator cable huge. If this was done, much of the mass would easily make it down. The carbon itself will *easily* survive reentry substantially intact.

Thermal conductivity comes into play, as well -- some estimates have Carbon Nanotubes's thermal conductivity around 6000W/m/K -- compare that to Copper, at 385W/m/K. Heat from the outside edges will quickly be conducted throughout the whole body, which will help keep the edges cooler -- you won't be warming up just the outside, you'll be warming up the whole mass.

If you assume *very* high specific strengths -- on the order of ten terapascals, you can stop thinking cable and start thinking ribbon, which will eliminate the risk of cablefall -- the surface to weight ratio will help the upper end of the cable to burn up in the atmosphere, and the lower end will float down. But if you're working in the 200-500GPa range, you're going to need a cable with substantial mass that's likely to have a very high thermal conductivity and a very high melt temp. It could fall hard.
posted by eriko at 11:10 AM on January 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


You know what makes me nuts? People who won't stand to the right on the Space Escalator, so you can't get past when you're in real hurry.
posted by steef at 11:10 AM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I read Red Mars. I don't wonder.

You aren't laboring under the delusion that KSR's Mars trilogy is anything like scientifically accurate, are you? Just because they call it hard science fiction doesn't make it correct.
posted by Justinian at 11:29 AM on January 7, 2009


Interesting that it takes most of a day to fall.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 11:30 AM on January 7, 2009


I'm pretty sure if carbon nano tubes get too hot, they'll disintegrate.
posted by delmoi at 11:49 AM on January 7, 2009


This brought an enormous smile to my face. Thanks.
posted by dios at 12:00 PM on January 7, 2009


I've long wondered just how you build the thing. How do you connect the cable between the counterweight and the anchorage in the first place?

Obviously you dispatch it to orbit first and then slowly lower it back to earth.
posted by sour cream at 12:03 PM on January 7, 2009


I think the plan (if there really is one somewhere) to build one of these is: you let the cable loose downward *and* upward from its station in geostationary orbit, at the same time, such that the weights are balanced. In other words, one part of the cable hangs down 24,000 miles, and there's another part that hangs *up* whatever amount of miles is needed to balance things right at the geostationary point. The upper part is there to keep the cable taut, basically (but not *too* taut, heh).

The tricky part, it seems to me, is once the part you're lowering starts skipping and bouncing around through the upper atmosphere -- how do you get the final endpoint to reach the ground where you want it to go? Weight it really heavily at the bottom? Helicopters and grappling hooks? If we ever build one of these, it will be the single most important and useful thing the human race has ever built. Unfortunately, I doubt I'll live long enough to see it happen.
posted by jamstigator at 12:08 PM on January 7, 2009


I think it would be cool, but I don't see it as the most important thing ever built. That honor belongs, in perpetuity, to the Atari 2600 console.
posted by Mister_A at 12:13 PM on January 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


I will consider it a disappointment if there are not functioning space elevators in my lifetime.
posted by dios at 12:14 PM on January 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


The space elevator and it's acolytes always freak me out, it's like the believe it's the one travel answer to low space orbit. I'm always like "What are they gonna attach it to and who the hell is gonna ride it?!"

That means that any lengths longer than 200 miles will burn up in the atmosphere

New York is what, 14 miles wide? Try saying, "hey, don't worry, anything over 200 miles will burn up to them". and how is atmosphere defined, will everything above say, 10 miles burn up or what? and lets not even get into what's on the elevator at the time it goes down. and the insurance rates for cites in the probable path of falling space elevator would probably go up.

Clearly, we need to work on teleportation.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:18 PM on January 7, 2009


I wouldn't think it would be too difficult to find somewhere on the equator with very few people living within 200 miles due east.
posted by aubilenon at 12:34 PM on January 7, 2009


Justinian: "You aren't laboring under the delusion that KSR's Mars trilogy is anything like scientifically accurate, are you? Just because they call it hard science fiction doesn't make it correct."

Yeah, like these 600x600 animated GIFs are particularly trustworthy.
posted by Plutor at 12:40 PM on January 7, 2009


Yeah, like these 600x600 animated GIFs are particularly trustworthy.

No, but neither do they propose to warm up a planet by dropping a bunch of windmill generators to convert wind to heat.
posted by Justinian at 12:48 PM on January 7, 2009


When I see "space elevator" I think Ben Bova's Mercury, but apparently nobody else ever does.
posted by caution live frogs at 1:17 PM on January 7, 2009


7) The space elevator plays a Muzak version of Toto's "Africa" on continuous loop. Seven hours later, all trapped on board have punctured their own eardrums.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:35 PM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


No, but neither do they propose to warm up a planet by dropping a bunch of windmill generators to convert wind to heat.

Of course, it wasn't supposed to be the only method as it was shown that it contributed (off the top of my head) 0.15K to the total global temperature increase
Finally got around to reading RGB Mars over the last three months - I too want to see a movie of the elevator crashing
posted by bruzie at 1:55 PM on January 7, 2009



Of course, it wasn't supposed to be the only method as it was shown that it contributed (off the top of my head) 0.15K to the total global temperature increase


Yeah, but in reality it would have contributed 0.00k to the total global temperature increase.
posted by Justinian at 2:33 PM on January 7, 2009


"What are they gonna attach it to and who the hell is gonna ride it?!"

A rock. No one.

A space elevator is great for moving things to a geostationary orbit that don't mind going through the Van Allen belt slowly. People, not so much.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:44 PM on January 7, 2009


A space elevator would surely require tons of carbon nanotubes, and we are far from being able to produce that much yet. In the meantime, I'm content to speculate on what the bulk macroscopic properties of grams of nanotube fibers would be.

1. If carbon nanotubes were extruded as threads, then twisted into yarns, then knitted into a nice scarf, would it be warm?

2. Could such a scarf be dyed, or would it be like the Model T, only available in black? Personally, I'd hope for a mauve mordant.

3. Here's a biggie; would it be itchy?

4. In a cold-weather survival situation, could it be used as tinder? Alternatively, would a scarf wearing cigarette smoker be at risk of initiating a horrific conflagration?

6. Could sheets of the stuff replace flash paper for magicians?

7. In a different emergency scenario, could such a scarf double as an effective automotive tow-strap?

8. Would its density be so low that if accidentally let go of in the wind, would it remain aloft for an extended period, perhaps coming down in the Pacific Gyre and entangling or asphyxiating a marine mammal?

9. When rubbed together, would the yarns sound like fingernails-on-chalkboard?

10. If rubbed correctly, could this scarf acquire, hold, and discharge a voltage that would out-perform a Taser?
posted by Tube at 3:24 PM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Frankly, I'd be more interested in the atmospheric effects caused by an intact space elevator, and vice-versa. Wouldn't an enormous cable to space cause all kinds of crazy wind vortex action? I'm thinking less Death Star from Star Wars than Mega Maid from Spaceballs. And, um, mightn't constant wind bombardment maybe kind of, like, erode the thing, or set it to wiggle->snap mode? And, um, yeah, carbon nanotubes are strong and stiff, but aren't they also, like, really fucking not good things to have flying around in the air for every living creature to inhale?
posted by Sys Rq at 3:59 PM on January 7, 2009


Oh, and also: What about lightning?
posted by Sys Rq at 4:03 PM on January 7, 2009


Is this one of those mame emulators for the old star wars coin-op?
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 4:15 PM on January 7, 2009


11. If a carbon nanotube scarf had a small weight sewn in the end, say a number of Indian rupee coins, would its low density result in a silent "acoustic signature" when swung, and lead to the re-birth of a thug cult?
posted by Tube at 4:41 PM on January 7, 2009


Great, now I totally want to play Tempest. Anybody got any tokens left?
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 4:54 PM on January 7, 2009


12. If it swam, would it get wet? Or would the water get it instead?
posted by argybarg at 9:25 PM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


You aren't laboring under the delusion that KSR's Mars trilogy is anything like scientifically accurate, are you?

C'mon, NASA simulations show that Kasei would definitely adapt to the rapidly thickening Martian atmosphere to the point where he'd be able to run all the way around the planet, just 20-odd years after the First Hundred first put spade to regolith.

But I figure that if a space elevator attached to an asteroid loses its asteroid, uh, something roughly like what the book describes is going to happen. Something. I mean, where else is it gonna go?

A bigger problem with the space elevator has always been that it's going to cross the orbital paths of nearly all satellites that aren't in geosynchronous orbit.

Yabbut. The useful life of such satellites is nigh around 15 years regardless. They're also made to last even that long because of the high cost to orbit. The prospect of a space elevator changes the game to where cheap, disposable, short-term satellites become feasible.

Of course, your litigation scenario makes sense here, as well, because the old-school launch industry won't want to switch over, while a plethora of little startups will instead grab this business. The onces that aren't sued out of existence survive long enough to make a few people a lot of money, but an elevator bubble explodes, leaving the remainder for the surviving dinosaur launch industry to snap up cheaply.
posted by dhartung at 10:35 PM on January 7, 2009


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