Could A Space Elevator Save The Planet?S

A space elevator, carrying people and objects off the planet and into orbit, is the kind of cool mega-engineering project that thrills science-fiction fans. But it could happen in your lifetime (if you're young), and it may save the planet.

This weekend, Microsoft is hosting a Space Elevator Conference to discuss ways of making the Roald Dahl-esque dream a reality. And NASA is co-sponsoring the "Tether Challenge," aka the Space Elevator Games, as part of its Centennial Challenge, with contestants competing to devise a material strong enough to carry items up 62,000 miles — with the winner getting $2 million. Says NASA:

This is a challenge in materials engineering in which the tether provided by each team is subjected to a pull test. In order to win the $2 million prize, the tether must exceed the strength of the best available commercial tether by 50 percent with no increase in mass. A tether that can win this challenge would be a major step forward in materials technology. Such improved materials would have wide range of applications in space and on Earth. In past years the Tether Challenge was held in conjunction with the Power Beaming Challenge at an event called the Space Elevator Games. In 2009 the events will be separate. Some space enthusiasts see the potential of wireless power transmission and high-strength tethers being combined to realize the space elevator, a concept that would bring about a revolution in space activity. The space elevator and even space solar power may be many years away, but dramatic improvements in power beaming and tether materials that result from these challenges can lead to many near-term innovations in a wide range of fields.

This year the Tether Challenge will be held at the 2009 Space Elevator Conference in Redmond, Washington in August.

So far, early reports coming out of the conference suggest that people are still grappling with the challenges of creating a space elevator, which may still be decades away. But the development of carbon nanotubes is an encouraging sign. If we did have a space elevator, the prohibitive cost of getting people and materials into orbit — and exploring the solar system — would drop tremendously. But perhaps more importantly, it might also save our environment. Writes PC World:

Several of the experts agreed that one reason to build a low-cost transportation method is to build satellites for generating solar energy. "Solar-power satellites is really the biggest need to haul heavy stuff to geosynchronous altitude," said Keith Henson, founder of L5 Society.

[Bryan] Laubscher agreed, saying that space solar power will be the second big money-maker in space, after the existing communications market.

With a space elevator, you could build massive solar energy farms in orbit and send energy back to Earth, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels — just as long as you found a way to grapple with the ever-present peril of space junk, which would be constantly threatening to smash into your nice shiny elevator.