Researchers at Shizuoka University, working in conjunction with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), will begin trials on a miniature version of a space elevator next week.
The test is very small and simple, the tiniest step towards an actual elevator to the stars. This space elevator will consist of a small box 6 centimeters (2.4 inches) long, 3 cm (1.18 inches) wide, and 3 cm high. This box will move along a 10-meter (32-foot) cable suspended in orbit between two small CubeSats. This movement will be monitored with cameras inside of the satellites.
“It’s going to be the world’s first experiment to test elevator movement in space,” a university spokesperson told the AFP news agency in an interview.
There are several technical reasons why space elevators have not been seriously attemptedin the over 100 years since they were originally dreamed up by Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895. Chief among them is that a cable capable moving from the surface of the planet through orbit all the way to a counterpoint in space would have to lighter and stronger than any known material due to the extreme stresses it would face.
The Japanese construction company Obayashi, which is collaborating with Shizuoka University, has had the goal of building a space elevator by 2050 for years. When the company announced its plan in 2014, it said that the “current technology levels are not yet sufficient to realize the concept, but our plan is realistic.”
That plan involves building a 96,000-kilometer (59,651-mile) carbon nanotube cable, a 400-meter (1,312-foot) diameter ‘Earth Port’ here on the ground, and a 12,500-ton counter-weigh in space. Carbon nanotubes have more tensile strength than steel, which would not be up to such an intense task, though they haven’t been constructed or tested at such a mammoth scale.
While the difficulties of building such an elevator are astronomical, the potential for financial benefits are equally large. Preliminary studies based on hypotheticals have proposed that space elevators would bring the cost of moving cargo to space down to $100 per pound compared to current launch costs of $10,000-$40,000 per pound. Such a decrease would have the potential to radically lower the price of a space travel.
But first, it’s got to get built. And to be built, it has to be tested.