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Up!

The odd thing about the space elevator is it is so obvious. I thought of the idea independently when I was about fifteen. I even sketched it and did some rudimentary sums and the forgot. I really did. This is not a “Nick’s so clever” post. It is a Nick’s converging on the same track as almost everyone else who cares about this extraordinarily simple fact.

We are on one of eight planets. This blog is hosted in Brisbane. I have the money in my current account to be there with my posidrives (if they let them on the ‘plane) tomorrow (whatever that actually is in Brisbane). I am not a rich man. It is hardly exotic is it?

What is exotic is “up” not “around” (been there done that, got the postcard yet?). Now, don’t get me wrong some people are doing the right thing. LISA (or similar – gravity wave interferometer) looks like it might happen – eventually. I shall personally disembowel with the bluntest thing in my cutlery drawer any US President who cancels the Webb ‘scope (Hubble replacement) and “private space” is going great guns. The Aussies (bless ‘em) have even got a beer for space tourists! Just down the road from me Jodrell Bank will be the focus (not technically the focus but you know what I mean – “In’t the Universe like fukin’ brilliant our kid”! quoth Prof Cox) of the Square Kilometre Array. Yeah, the same Jodrell Bank that way back when this website had a black background was threatened with closure for the want of three million quid! Excellent! Excellent that it is happening at all and doubly so that it is happening on my doorstep. No, I’m seriously not saying government ought to hose monies at science but considering that it generally pisses it up the wall on things that very frequently are less than wasted….

What I’m saying is if the government has to spend your money (and mine) then I want it spent on true magnificence and not “obesity co-ordinators”. I can get fat off my own bat.

Back to me. Sort of. In 1995 I started my MSc in astrophysics (yeah, I have a dog in this fight but mine really is worthwhile – do I need to say why? If so I have lost you and you can grab your coat on the way out and basically I hope the door doesn’t bang your arse) at Queen Mary, London. I met a Spaniard there and you know what? She’d only written her undergrad dissertation on the space elevator! I was like wow! I really was. The idea, like so many others, like the Silbervogel or whatever had just been in the aether (which Einstein demonstrated doesn’t so much not exist as just not matter – ouch!).

Whether or not great minds think alike is irrelevant. Competent ones can do and we were far from alone. Both Agnetha and I had dreamed independently of something grand and this was not the meeting in a pub in Stepney of two geniuses. It was better than that for it was written on a beer mat. It was simply the realisation that it could be done and that we were not alone in conceiving this scheme. Yeah, I know it was not original but it honestly had been to me and her. That is my point. If the idea can occur without separate cause to the likes of me or Agnetha then…

… Maybe it’s a good one. Not an Earth-shaker. Not a Quantum Mechanics or whatever but basically, physically, (the engineering is as ever something else – I have have the greatest respect for engineers – they make dreams real – and that is way cool) absolutely obvious.

So I dreamed it up myself. And so did Agnetha. And so did so many others… It is a curious feeling you get at 22 when you have a scheme and look at the literature and discover it isn’t original. You get torn between not being the first to see the promised land and the reassurance that the promised land actually exists and your navigation was not so mad after all. But I was a true physicist so I was happy (my pride and evil are almost separate). You catch me in the right light and I am still that idealistic – though fleeting now. Anything that truly matters belongs to nobody by which I mean everybody of course.

No, it isn’t like being Abel Tasman – it’s something else. I can’t really explain it. It is the thrill of seeing the fire even if that fire is not you. It’s way cool anyway. God alone knows what it must felt like to be Einstein or Feynman. I have a picture of Richard Feynman at the Nobel awards “do” in ’65 and he’s in evening dress with a fuck-off cigar and a cunt-off grin. Feynman shared the 1965 Nobel for Physics. Chemistry, if you ask me (which you won’t), is just for gayers who can’t hack the mathematics of real scence. I mean really what is the point of chemistry. “It turns blue”. Whatever!

Anyway, back to my dream…

That really could be built for ten billion in ten years. The bill for a sports day in London is double that at least. Regardless of whether Boris Johnson plays “Wiff Waff” or not.

I just want to go home – that is always what I wanted – I’m verging on the paranoid on that score. But I won’t and neither shall you. It could happen technically but it just won’t.

Our dreams must outlive us I guess.

13 Comments

  1. David Gillies says:

    When I was doing my BSc in physics at Imperial (late eighties) a space elevator was introduced as a thought experiment in first year Newtonian dynamics. Given known materials science at that time, it was clearly infeasible (couldn’t support its own weight.) Then came carbon-carbon, and then nanotubes. At last, we had a material that, given reasonable extrapolations, possessed the moxie to be a real substrate for a space elevator. Result!

    Except.

    Except.

    Except: this thing, were it to be built, would have to stretch from the equator to above GEO orbit. It has to be built of carbon fibre. Erm, lightning strikes in the troposphere? At exosphere altitudes there’s monatomic oxygen, which is a freer radical than Bill Ayres – powerfully corrosive. There’s micrometeoroids. Space debris. Satellites. Harmonic vibrations in the cable. Windage. Hell, a Piper Cub that went off course could sever it. It would be the biggest terrorist target in the world (thankfully bringing it down would not have the catastrophic consequences depicted in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars saga, but it would still be a disaster.)

    How do you power the cars? Beam lasers at ‘em is the current idea. OK, what about when it’s cloudy and you lose line of sight? It’s forty thousand km to the counterweight, and given conservative energy budgets an eight day trip. So, no humans are going to go up it, because they’ll be long dead from radiation poisoning by the time they get there (the Van Allen belts are not your friends, kids).

    Even if we ever build the thing (big ‘if’) it will still be just a cargo hoist while the humans go up the rocket way. Sadly it seems at present to be one of those ideas that look really cool after a couple of pints but run into the sand the next day when you do the engineering.

  2. CountingCats says:

    Might this not meet the definition of a Transformative Technology? Something which is close to real and will reshape civilisation?

    Haven’t done one for ages, but there are still a couple being mulled around.

    Anyway, yes, it will have to stretch out 20,000 miles past geosync unless it has a counterweight on the end, but think what a marvelous, and precisely aimable, slingshot that latter half would be for interplanetary payloads.

  3. View from the Solent says:

    David Gillies
    April 28, 2011 at 7:45 am

    David, have you no soul? Arthur C Clarke first described geostationary satellites in 1945. Many decades later they became reality. In the late 70s he described a space elevator (Fountains of Paradise). Prescient man.
    So the materials don’t exist. Yet. I’m a dull mathser, and an old geezer, but I find excitement in that vision.
    Dare to dream.

  4. David Gillies says:

    This is NOT a materials science problem. If we can assemble nanotubes into strands longer than a few mm then we can build the cable. The cable is not the stumbling block. It is all the ancillary crap that is the deal-breaker. There’s always some magic-bullet transformative technology, and it’s always bullshit. I’m not throwing out objections from some desire to be a nay-saying, contrarian wanker. I would LOVE a space elevator. The delta-v a 60,000 km tether would provide would make Jupiter reachable in months rather than years. It would be spectacular. But if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride, and if there were no radiotoxic zones between here and GEO then Hallelujah.

  5. Roue le Jour says:

    I know they bat for the other side, but the space elevator was pretty soundly rubbished in New Scientist a couple of years ago.

    Talk of ‘hanging a cable from a geostationary satellite’ as some do is nonsense. The centre of gravity has to be at geo, so if the cable is symmetric, that’s 22,000 miles of it above geo and 22,000 miles below. That’s 44,000 miles, which is greater than the circumference of the Earth, so if it fell down, it would wrap around and totally destroy everything on the equator, causing earthquakes and tidal waves the like of which we have never seen. Anchoring such a vast mass would be impossible, like trying to tie the Golden Gate Bridge to a sandcastle.

    The real bummer is the forces. Up is not the problem, it’s the sideways as the car is accelerated around the Earth.

    Finally, the cost benefit doesn’t work. To justify it, you would need to be putting up hundreds of tons a day, otherwise a rocket is cheaper. What application did you have in mind that requires all that stuff to get up there?

    The big problem with space is it’s a hobby, like sailing, it consumes wealth, it doesn’t generate it. Even if the asteroid belt was composed of white truffles in platinum cans, it wouldn’t be cost effective to go get them.

    The only reason nations are interested in space is to put military shit in LEO to drop on people. I love the ‘Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion’ stuff as much as the next guy, but I can’t see it, I really can’t.

  6. JuliaM says:

    “Even if the asteroid belt was composed of white truffles in platinum cans, it wouldn’t be cost effective to go get them.”

    That’s assuming we want to stay on Earth, of course.

    Isn’t this – no matter how costly – a worthwhile experiment to give us more data on space travel to look towards the ‘colonising other worlds’ dream?

  7. Lynne says:

    If it’s okay with you brainiacs I’ll let you do the sums and I’ll just hitch a ride when you’re through crunching the numbers. But hurry up, will ya because time ain’t on my side.

  8. Roue le Jour says:

    That’s assuming we want to stay on Earth, of course.

    Guilty as charged, there, JuliaM. I was demolishing a straw man I hadn’t bothered to build in the first place. Exploring space has been likened to the exploration of the Earth. However, people who traveled to new lands were doing so either to escape oppressive bastards, or to find something to steal and sell back home and become rich and famous. There’s nowhere in reachable space, i.e. our system, where humans could live, and there’s nothing out there to steal that would justify the cost of going to get it and bringing it back to Earth. No profit, basically.

    I’m all in favour of colonising other worlds. I just don’t know of any suitable candidates.

    I would argue there’s lots of other stuff we could do, anyway. Build a serious space station, for a start, big enough for hundreds of people, easily doable with current technology. (Rockets are chemistry, you philistine, Nick) You want to terraform? Practice on Australia. It has a more or less breathable atmosphere and is surrounded by liquid water, so that’s 99% of the problems solved right off. Get it green from coast to coast and you’ve increased the Earth’s capacity by more than any colony would do.

  9. sacerdote says:

    I absolutely love the idea of a space elevator, but I’m with David Gillies on this one. The technology we have at present,

    even allowing for carbon nanotubes (which we can’t spin out long enough at present) just isn’t enough.

    Having said which, there are alternatives. My favourite is Josh Hall’s ‘Space Pier’ which offers most of the advantages of

    a space elevator, at a fraction of the cost. and we could probably build it today. If we had artificial diamond in large

    quantities (just made from carbon, – that’s the use of chemistry) it would be a mere 1/2 bil.

    And we definitely do want to get into space. This place will be uninhabitable in a mere billion years. Those exo-planets

    won’t terraform themselves y’know. The sooner we get started, the sooner we’ll finish.

    Plus in the near term, a single metallic asteroid brought down to earth would be worth around 17 trillion in precious

    metals. C-type ones might be even more valuable. Worth going to space? I think so.

  10. RTS says:

    I’m afraid there’s zero chance this thing could be done for $10 billion within 10 years. That estimate is so wildly optimistic as to not even be funny. The technology to build it doesn’t exist yet. Yes, cabon nanotubes have the theoretical strength to use as the elevator cable, but they can’t be manufactured in the quantities let alone with the consistant quality you’d need. And even if they could you need to remember the whole manufacturing facility would need to be hauled into orbit.

    As for the laser as a power delivery system – yes, fine, but only if you don’t mind it taking a month to get into orbit. I’ve crunched some rough numbers – to get there in say, 24 hours, assuming total mass of around 2 tonnes and overall efficiency of the conversion of incoming laser energy to motive energy of around 33% (very generous I thought) you’d need a laser putting out more than 1 gigawatt laser. That’s a very big laser that would melt anything you pointed it at. The technology simply doesn’t exist to capture that much energy and convert it to electricity.

    Also, assuming you don’t want to haul the thousands of tonnes of raw material into orbit you’re first going to have to capture an asteroid and pull it into geosync orbit and then you build you factory on that (actually two factories – one to build the cable going down, the other to build one going out). Consider how long and how many space flights it took to build the ISS (which cost upwards of $35 billion), so whilst it’s a nice idea we’re not going to see it in our lifetimes, maybe by the end of the 21st century – but only if it goes for serious planning by the middle of the century.

    But who knows what’ll be discovered by then, maybe a new propulsion system that’ll make getting into orbit so easy as to make the elevator concept redundant.

  11. CountingCats says:

    RleJ,

    Nanotube cable fall down and smash everything in its path? Nah. First, it is a ribbon, roughly the same mass and same dimension side to side as a sheet of paper, although at 44,000 miles maybe a tad longer. Still, terminal velocity would be bugger all. Dropped a sheet of paper from a tall building lately?

    If the ribbon were to be snapped, causing the higher bit to shoot off to the stars, or at least to a higher orbit, while the earthside segment drops it would burn as readily as any other sheet of paper performing reentry, and that which didn’t burn would hardly be in a position to do more than flutter to ground.

    So far as space consuming wealth, sigh, not that old canard again. You serious? By the mid 70′s the benefits just from improved weather forecasting had paid for the entire space program. Everything else, the improved technology, microelectronics, telemetry, communications, new materials, moon landing, EVERYTHING, came free.

    Best investment humanity has made since Isabella hocked her jewels to stake Christopher Columbus.

  12. NickM says:

    At secondary school I was the one selected from my year group (c.180) to do a “Masterclass” in da chemicals at Newcastle University. So first day, we fourteen year olds bustle into a lecture theatre and on my flippy table some poor sod had etched painstakingly the immortal line, “Chem is wank”. Cghemistry, biology and all that jazz have their uses but they are tuning for Radio Luxembourg’s on Ma Nature’s tits. You want route one to her cunny – that’s physics. Why the fuck do you think that whenever folks decide to publish a list of the most influential folks like ever the top three is always a permutation of Muhammed, Jesus Christ and Isaac Newton?

    “To justify it, you would need to be putting up hundreds of tons a day, otherwise a rocket is cheaper.”

    Which is the point Roue. The whole fucking point. And that is just the start. Why did the pilgrims nearly starve but for the help of the friendly natives (do you get that ref to a former squash court in Chicago?) because they didn’t know how to live in their New World. – but by God did they learn! I could, for an easily affordable sum, be in Philadelphia this afternoon. The only reason I will not is I’ve been there and it’s shite. Our new world is up, not across. And yeah it will be tricky. Technically it will be harder than America or Australia but we will not go by sailing ship will we?

    The stars are our destiny. There is nothing else and they are everything. Oh, the engineering of the space el is something else but then so was an excursion for Neil and Buzz. There is nothing else. Oh, I know, I went through a phase of seeing the little picture – how clever can I be talking about the quantum but above me the stars always taunted me. Even in London. In 1996 I saw the emergency services mobilised for the bombing of Canary Wharf. That was after a lecture that involved LISA.

    I mean we were thinking “Up!” and it was rudely disturbed by folks who care about the colour of flags.

    Yeah, the IRA almost disrupted my General Relativity lecture.

    With their pointless, dismal terrestrial causes. Like I care. I didn’t, I made up load of old pony and shagged a Finn who had tits that stood to attention like they were on a parade ground…

    We got to go up. There is no other movement left.

    Are you not bored? I am regardless of Finnish tits (the nipples were like 7.62mm rounds, mind) and she was filthy. Like the world had gone away.

    Yeah, Cats… It should have been put under TT but we have way more categories than make sense.

  13. NickM says:

    At secondary school I was the one selected from my year group (c.180) to do a “Masterclass” in da chemicals at Newcastle University. So first day, we fourteen year olds bustle into a lecture theatre and on my flippy table some poor sod had etched painstakingly the immortal line, “Chem is wank”. Chemistry, biology (I realy liked ecology) and all that jazz have their uses but they are tuning for Radio Luxembourg’s on Ma Nature’s tits. You want route one to her cunny – that’s physics. Why the fuck do you think that whenever folks decide to publish a list of the most influential folks: the top three is always a permutation of Muhammed, Jesus Christ and Isaac Newton.

    My point about physics. Just there. Half-wits can believe in what they sodding want and maim like the shits they are but some of us see it bigger,

    “To justify it, you would need to be putting up hundreds of tons a day, otherwise a rocket is cheaper.”

    Which is the point Roue. The whole fucking point. And that is just The Start. Why did the pilgrims nearly starve but for the help of the friendly natives (do you get that ref to a former squash court in Chicago?) because they didn’t know how to live in their New World. – but by God did they learn! I could, for an easily affordable sum, be in Philadelphia this afternoon. The only reason I will not is I’ve been there and it’s shite. Our new world is up, not across. And yeah it will be tricky. Technically it will be harder than America or Australia but we will not go by sailing ship will we?

    The stars are our destiny. There is nothing else and they are everything. Oh, the engineering of the space el is something else but then so was an excursion for Neil and Buzz. There is nothing else. Oh, I know, I went through a phase of seeing the little picture – how clever can I be talking about the quantum but above me the stars always taunted me. Even in London. In 1996 I saw the emergency services mobilised for the bombing of Canary Wharf. That was after a lecture that involved LISA.

    I mean we were thinking “Up!” and it was rudely disturbed by folks who care about the colour of flags.

    Yeah, the IRA almost disrupted my General Relativity lecture.

    With their pointless, dismal terrestrial causes. Like I care. I didn’t, I made up load of old pony and shagged a Finn who had tits that stood to attention like they were on a parade ground…

    We got to go up. There is no other movement left.

    Are you not bored? I am regardless of Finnish tits (the nipples were like 7.62mm rounds, mind) and she was filthy. Like the world had gone away.

    Yeah, Cats… It should have been put under TT but we have way more categories than make sense.

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