The space elevator may be a very real possibility within our lifetimes. Previously the stuff of science fiction novels, scientists and engineers around the world will continue their discussion at a conference in Japan this November. The space elevator’s basic design would include a cable that is anchored to the Earth’s surface, and on the other end, tens of thousands of kilometers away, a counterweight for balance. The space elevator could be used to solve many different problems, from nuclear waste disposal to powering homes with solar panels.
The technology driving the development of the space elevator is the carbon nanotube. Its lightweight properties and tensile strength, over 180 times stronger than steel cable, make it the ideal cable for the space elevator. Currently there are several logistical problems, which range from designing a carbon nanotube strong enough to support the elevator to finding an ideal site to design and build the elevator, which would require international consensus and input. Several organizations are working on space elevator designs, and NASA is holding a $4 million Space Elevator Challenge to encourage designs.