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Space elevator project on the rise as Japanese scientists begin tests

Image credit: DT

Japanese scientists based at Shizuoka University are to begin space-based testing for a project to build a space elevator, according to reports from Japan's The Mainichi newspaper.

A space elevator is a form of transportation system first proposed in the 1800s by pioneering Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. The proposed system features a tether attached to the surface of a planet (usually the Earth) and reaching upwards into space, allowing vehicles containing astronauts or cargo to travel into space riding the cable. This would negate the need for traditional rockets for these journeys and could prove a far safer, cheaper and more reliable method for transporting cargo and people into space.

According to The Mainichi, a journey to the International Space Station (ISS) via space elevator could take as cost as little as a hundredth of that associated with rocket launches to the ISS.

For an Earth-based space elevator, the tether could be attached to the equator and extend 35,786km into space – the point of geostationary orbit. It would take approximately eight days for cargo to travel to this point above Earth.

Although space elevators have so far remained within the realms of science fiction – and have been decried as impossible by figures such as industrialist Elon Musk – Japanese scientists at Shizuoka University and other institutions are now taking steps to begin development of the first (known) space elevator.

In September, the researchers will begin testing for a space elevator by exploring the movements of a container riding a 10m-long steel cable in a space environment.

The container, two satellites and the cable will be carried to the ISS from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre on September 11. The satellites will be launched from the ISS and the container will travel up and down the cable between the satellites while its movements are recorded via satellite cameras.

Obayashi Corporation, which is working as technical advisor to the project, has estimated that it may be able to deliver a functional space elevator by 2050 using the extraordinary mechanical properties of carbon nanotubes. However, a number of obstacles remain before space elevators may become a reality, such as how the extreme structure may be powered and how it can be kept safe from cosmic radiation and collisions with fast-moving satellites, space debris and meteorites.

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