Google Admits Attempting To Design A Space Elevator
Space elevators. A play-thing of science fiction writers from Arthur C. Clarke to Kim Stanley Robinson, these futuristic transportation systems, are perceived by many to be a realistic possibility of the near(ish) future. So realistic in fact, that Google have just admitted to committing some of their greatest minds to the task of designing one.
In a new issue of Fast Company, Richard DeVaul, the head of Google X's Rapid Evaluation Team, revealed that a team at the top-secret Google X lab committed a not-insignificant amount of time into investigating designs for a real life space elevator. The fruits of the Google X team's research was that ultimately, a space elevator could be possible, but not until we see a massive leap in the field of material science.
"The team knew the cable would have to be exceptionally strong -- 'at least a hundred times stronger than the strongest steel that we have,' by (Google X researcher) Dan Piponi's calculations," says Fast Company's Jon Gertner. "He found one material that could do this: carbon nanotubes. But no one has manufactured a perfectly formed carbon nanotube standard longer than a meter. And so elevators 'were put in a deep freeze' as (Google X researcher) Mitch Heinrich says, and the team decided to keep tabs on any advances in the carbon nanotube field."
So, you're telling us there's a chance? Indeed, despite this seemingly fatal setback to the idea of a real life space elevator, Google's brightest minds aren't ruling it out forever. As Fast Company mention, the Google X team will no doubt have their finger firmly placed on the pulse of carbon nanotube manufacturing.
And well they should. A space elevator would revolutionize human space travel, which is exactly the reason it has enchanted so many great minds that write about space for a living. Arthur C. Clarke both wrote and spoke fondly of the space elevator concept, one that he initially learned of through conversations with Yuri Artsutanov who had evolved the initial designs of fellow Russian, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. This passion is clearly alive and well in Google's Richard Devaul, who is clearly captivated by the efficiency a potential space elevator could offer.
"It would be a massive capital investment," DeVaul told Fast Company. But DeVaul recognizes that one a space elevator is built, it's pretty damned efficient. "It could take you from ground to orbit with a net of basically zero energy. It drives down the space-access costs, operationally to being incredibly low."
While it is easy to get swept up in the romantic nature of a space elevator, there would appear to be another major roadblock to its development. Our planet is currently littered with satellites and debris that cover just about every mile of orbital space we have to offer. But a space elevator, which is essentially a path from a fixed point on Earth to a fixed point in space would face the prospect of being bombarded by these high-speed and essential satellites. If any space elevator is to succeed, arguably the most complex piece of development would not come in the form of cables, but in the elevator's satellite anchor deploying a complex debris avoidance and detection system. Then again, this is science fiction we're talking about. In this field, where there's a will, there's a way. And Google X has willpower by the bucketload.