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The Crazy Japanese Plan To Build An Elevator To Space

Could this put space within everybody’s reach?

Michael Cruickshank
The Crazy Japanese Plan To Build An Elevator To Space© 2018 NASA

Humanity has had the technology to build spacecraft, and habitats in space, now for almost 50 years. What we haven’t had is the money to do more than cursory exploration. Getting into space is hugely expensive, as each ton of cargo carried into orbit, requires a huge rocket to lift it free of the Earth’s gravity. Indeed it is no coincidence that the International Space Station (ISS) is the most expensive project in history.

There is one solution to this problem however, which has long endured in the realms of science fiction, yet now a Japanese company wants to make it a reality. Obayashi Inc, the company behind huge building projects like the Tokyo Skytree, believes it can build what is known as a ‘Space Elevator” by 2050.

This project involves stringing a very long cable, from the surface of a planet, all the way up to geostationary orbit. Craft would ascend this cable through some form of mechanical propulsion, at a much lower cost than a chemical rocket, and then arrive at a point in orbit around the planet. Due to the length of the cable needed, and the forces it would have to endure, such a project would require materials currently unavailable to humans.

 Image: © 2014 Obayashi

Obayashi Inc. believes this is set to change however, and points to the emerging material of Carbon Nanotubes. Mr Yoji Ishikawa, a research and development manager at Obayashi, explains:

"The tensile strength [of Nanotubes] is almost a hundred times stronger than steel cable so it's possible [...] Right now we can't make the cable long enough. We can only make 3-centimetre-long nanotubes but we need much more... we think by 2030 we'll be able to do it."

With these developments in mind, the company believes it is possible to build to fully functioning space elevator by the middle of the 21st century. It is unlikely however, to be a project just for their company, given the massive scale of the construction. More plausibly, an international consortium of governments and/or corporations would collaborate to build the space elevator, in order to bring down the costs of space access for all parties involved.

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