Space elevators have long captured the imagination of scientists and science fiction writers alike for their potential to revolutionize space travel. Rather than using expensive, single-use rockets to escape Earth’s gravity, space elevators would transport payloads and even human passengers using cables anchored to the ground and extending tens of thousands of kilometres into space.
While still firmly in the realm of science fiction today, one architect’s innovative vision for a next-generation space elevator recently earned the prestigious Jacques Rogerie Foundation’s Architecture and Innovation for Space Grand Prix Award for his Space Elevator concept.
Jordan William Hughes, a 30-year-old architect from Barrow, England, was awarded the Jacques Rogerie Foundation’s Architecture and Innovation for Space Grand Prix Award and a €10,000 prize for designing the Ascensio space elevator.
Hughes’ award-winning concept outlines an elevator system with a space station anchored beyond geostationary orbit, lowering a tether through the atmosphere to connect with a mobile seafaring launch platform. This platform would sail to optimal locations around the Earth’s oceans to link up with the descending tether and launch payloads and passengers into space.
The essential advantage of this hybrid sea-and-space design is mobility, allowing optimal positioning for payload launches to reduce ascent distances and increase launch windows. The seafaring platform also adds stability and safety compared to ground or airborne launch sites. Hughes notes the elevator system would require solid, low-weight materials for the tether cable to sustain its weight under tension at such lengths. Developing carbon nanotubes or graphene filaments offers promise in this engineering challenge.
While radically different from today’s familiar rocket launches, the concept of using an orbiting space station to lower payloads on long tethers dates back over a century. In 1895, Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, known for groundbreaking theoretical work on rocketry and spaceflight, noted that an orbiting tower with a tether stretching towards the ground could provide free transport of payloads into space. A century later, American scientist Jerome Pearson outlined conceptual designs for anchored space tethers and orbiting satellites that could serve as waypoints for ascending and descending payload vehicles.
Understanding the Engineering Challenges of a Space Elevator
A space elevator is an ambitious infrastructure concept that would revolutionize access to space using a cable fixed to the Earth’s equator and extending tens of thousands of kilometres upwards. This cable would allow vehicles called “climbers” to transport cargo and humans efficiently and directly from a planetary surface into space. While frequently featured in science fiction, space elevators face immense engineering challenges.
At the heart of the concept is using the planet’s rotation to support the incredible lengths of cable needed. As objects attached to the line ascend, the downward gravitational pull lessens while upward centrifugal forces strengthen. These forces balance at geostationary orbit altitude, about 36,000 km above Earth.
Counterweights extend the cable, keeping tension to support the cable’s weight while allowing climbers to ascend. The cable thickness and material must be carefully designed to withstand these immense forces. Requires a material with extremely high specific strength – strong yet very light. No current materials meet the strength-to-weight ratio needed, but carbon nanotubes show promise as they can be made with tensile strength over 100 times stronger than steel at a fraction of the weight.
Advanced production techniques striving toward defect-free nanotubes hundreds of meters extended offer a path, though challenges remain.
Safety issues pose further challenges. Debris and meteoroid impacts must be avoided or absorbed without cable failure. The transit time through hazardous radiation of the Van Allen belts would also require shielding for passengers. Navigation hazards would need addressing through air traffic control restrictions and precision manoeuvring capability.
Climbers carrying people and cargo face engineering trials, too. They must efficiently scale hundreds of kilometres in a reasonable timeframe, likely using gravity assists, solar power collection, wireless energy transfer and other innovations. Acceleration forces on climbers, and the cable must be kept below critical thresholds. Operational schedules aim to minimize cable oscillations, vibrations and different dynamics.
While an unprecedented complex undertaking, space elevators offer transformative economic and operational potential.
Hughes’ design stands out for its mobility, safety improvements, and potential for efficient, regular launches. By winning the Jacques Rogerie Foundation award, his concept illustrates how space elevators could one day make the promise of efficient, environmentally friendly access to space a reality.
The Foundation’s award aims to spur architectural and technical innovations to expand and improve humanity’s reach into space.
While futuristic, Hughes notes that the realization of ideas like the Ascensio system could still be many years away, given the immense financial and technical challenges. However, he believes space elevators will one day become crucial infrastructure for ambitious space exploration. “It would revolutionize how we get to and from space and make it more viable,” says Hughes, speaking to the BBC.
Concepts like this offer an inspirational vision of how infrastructure innovations could transform humanity’s space capabilities. As wild as such designs may seem today, scientists like Tsiolkovsky recognized more than a century ago that space elevators could provide more efficient space access than rockets. While technical hurdles are immense, breakthroughs in materials like graphene and nanotubes for cable tethers give reason to believe space elevators or similar ideas could shift from fantasy to reality in the coming decades. Visions like this provide substance to future possibilities, showcasing designs optimized for efficiency and improved stability, safety and launch flexibility.
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- Architect Jordan William Hughes won a prestigious space innovation award for designing a space elevator called Ascensio.
- The design uses a tether from an orbiting space station to connect with a mobile seafaring launch platform.
- Using anchored tethers for space transport was envisioned over a century ago but remains challenging.
- Hughes’ design is innovative for its mobility and potential to improve efficiency and safety.
- Realization is likely years away, but this idea inspires future infrastructure to transform space access.