Getting into space the traditional way, in a space shuttle, is an expensive process but at least we know it works. Is travelling up in an elevator attached to a 36 000 km cable any more cost effective or realistic?
Well, it seems it could just be. Once the initial cost has been paid out to build a space elevator (a mere $10 billion) then a trip into space could cost us as little as a few hundred pounds. Couple this to new advances in nanotechnology and we all could be taking space holidays sooner than you might think; especially as a Japanese construction company has just announced that it will have built a working space elevator by 2050.
Space elevators are a fascinating way to show an application of carbon nanotubes. These incredibly small but strong fibres would be used to create the cable and it is only since their discovery has the possibility of a space elevator become a reality.
They could also be introduced when teaching about different carbon structures – why stick to graphite and diamond?
One thing your students are bound to wonder when they think about a space elevator is how tension is being kept in the cable.
The simple answer is that the other end of the cable is attached to a counterweight which is high enough that it is in a geostationary orbit. Students can apply their knowledge of satellites and centripetal forces to explain how this part of the elevator will work.
Video exploring carbon nanotubes.
News article on the announcement
News article on another possible way of getting into space: A space maglev train.