The creation of space elevators is getting closer to reality and could enable cheaper space travel, a leading engineering expert has said.
Peter Debney, a leading engineer at global construction and design firm Arup has said the devices, which would make space far more accessible, could be built cost-effectively within 100 years.
The idea of a space elevator – a transportation system that would use a cable to move people between Earth and space – has seen much speculation for years but the potential is now only starting to be realised.
Previous predictions have said the elevators could be built as soon as 2035 but these would be hugely expensive and not cost effective – as many prototypes are.
However, writing on the company’s website, Debney said those that are practical to build could be just round the corner: “Space elevators are a permanent infrastructure that will reach from the ground to high orbit.
“I believe that they could be built cost-effectively within a century, and pay for themselves within just a few years.
“While we have not quite got all the technology in place, and there are still engineering challenges to be overcome, the space elevator has nearly arrived.”
He said introducing space elevators, while having a large initial cost, would be cheaper than regularly launching rockets into orbit.
“An elevator should reduce the cost of getting into space to about $220/kg for an estimated build cost of $20 billion.
“It is difficult to predict how much of a difference a reduction of two orders of magnitude on the launch costs will make to the space industry and society, but it is likely to be as significant.
“Today the aerospace industry carries over three billion passengers and $6 trillion of goods a year. This means that the cost of a space elevator is about the same as one day’s air freight.
“The space industry has already given us countless improvements to our lives, from small ones like Velcro and non-stick frying pans, to much bigger ones like global weather forecasting and satellite navigation.
“Cheap space flight would accelerate this innovation, and bring even more benefits in the form of lunar and asteroid mining, as well as an expansion of the human race comparable to our ancestors first leaving Africa or the discovery of America.”
Google X, the company’s experimental division, has been looking at how viable space elevators are, among other ambitious projects, and thinks they will soon be possible.
In an interview with Fast Company earlier this year the team from the research lab confirmed they had thought through making a space elevator.
However, at present the technology to build one does not quite exist.
To be able to build an elevator, in theory at least, we need to be able to manufacture a material that is significantly stronger than any form of steel that exists at the moment.
The one potential solution which has been touted is using carbon nanotubes but, as Google confirmed, it has not been possible to manufacture a carbon nanotube strand longer than a metre.
There will naturally be many more construction challenges that need to be solved before we are able to create a space elevator but the general support for the elevators will mean that when the time comes considerable resources will be put into lifting us into space.