Sci-fi-like space elevators could become a reality in the "next 2 or 3 decades"

A space elevator is "a bridge to the entire solar system."
Chris Young
A space elevator concept.
A space elevator concept.

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The space elevator — a structure that reaches into the sky — might feel like a distant, farfetched concept, but it could be closer than we think.

In an op-ed for Scientific American, Physics professor Stephen Cohen at Vanier College in Montreal, Quebec, said he believes the sci-fi-like technology could be a reality within "the next two or three decades."

Cohen describes the space elevator as "a cable stretching from Earth to space, along which people and cargo can easily travel." In his op-ed, he claims engineers and scientists are breaking new ground when it comes to designing these massive structures that could revolutionize the way we access space.

Why build a space elevator?

Space elevators have the potential to massively reduce the cost and energy required to go to space. Companies like SpinLaunch are already testing new, potentially ground-breaking technologies that could dramatically slash the costs of sending small satellites and scientific payloads to space.

However, space elevators could launch people, cargo, and scientific payloads into space, so they would have the added benefit of boosting human spaceflight and space tourism.

With space elevators, "the word “space mission" would be replaced by "transit," as trips to space become routine and mostly independent of weather conditions," Cohen writes. "Transits involving humans would be safer than current practices, whereby astronauts must accept a nonnegligible risk to their lives with each launch."

"A space elevator becomes a bridge to the entire solar system. Release a payload in the lower portion, and you orbit Earth, but do so in the upper portion, and you orbit the sun, all without fuel."

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How would a space elevator work?

Cohen explains that his fascination with space elevators began when he was discussing thesis topics with Professor Arun Misra, the leading space expert in the mechanical engineering department at McGill University, in 2004.

Misra told him about the space elevator concept, a 62,130-mile-long (100,000-km) cable that extends up into the sky from the Earth's equator and is attached to a satellite in a geosynchronous orbit — meaning it orbits at the same speed as the Earth and, therefore, flies over a fixed location.

The concept would also use mechanical climbers to travel to different altitudes from Earth's surface. Depending on the altitude at which a capsule or spacecraft would be released, it would either start orbiting the Earth or the Sun or fall back to Earth.

Different concepts over the years have suggested different types of mechanical climbers. One space elevator concept, for example, would utilize maglev rail transporters to traverse the massive space cable at very high speeds.

As Cohen points out in his piece, the material required for such a cable would have to be 50 times stronger than steel, so space elevators are impossible with our current technology. In the meantime, he and "a handful of other people in the world are pretending that this problem will be solved and tackling other engineering aspects of space elevators while we wait."

Though Cohen doesn't work directly on the material aspect of space elevator technology, he believes we could be a mere decade or two away from having the material required to make space elevators a reality. Scientists are constantly working on making stronger materials and technologies for various reasons related to global infrastructure projects. This work could one day result in the advent of space elevators. It would be a development that could open space up to the masses and help humanity reach farther into the cosmos than ever before.