A team of Japanese researchers say they are planning to test out a prototype space elevator later this month, with the hope of building the real thing one day.
The scientists from Shizuoka University will launch their small box, 6 centimeters (2.4 inches) long, on a Japanese H-2B rocket on September 10 to the International Space Station (ISS), where it will later be released.
"It's going to be the world's first experiment to test elevator movement in space," a spokesperson for the university told AFP.
Consisting of two spacecraft, the plan is for them to separate in space, held together by a cable 10 meters (33 feet) long. A mini elevator will then travel along the taut cable, with cameras on the satellites monitoring its progress.
“The pair of satellites will be released from the International Space Station (ISS), and a container acting like an elevator car will be moved on a cable connecting the satellites using a motor,” Japanese newspaper The Mainichi said.
The project is being conducted in collaboration with Japanese construction firm Obayashi. Back in 2012, the Tokyo-based company unveiled their bold proposal to build an operational space elevator by 2050.
“The space elevator is planned to be built by the year 2050 with a capacity to carry 100-ton climbers,” they write on their website. “It is composed of a 96,000-kilometer carbon nanotube cable, a 400-meter diameter floating Earth Port and a 12,500-ton counter-weight.
“Other facilities include Martian/Lunar Gravity Centers, a Low Earth Orbit Gate, a Geostationary Earth Orbit Station, a Mars Gate and a Solar System Exploration Gate.”
That means this test run in orbit is a rather eye-opening 1.6 billion times shorter than the intended length of the finished space elevator. So don’t hold your breath for it to be completed any time soon.
As Obayashi said, they will need a counterweight far beyond geostationary orbit to support a station 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) high in geostationary orbit. The cable would reach 96,000 kilometers (60,000 miles) in length, as they mention.
That’s, well, pretty ambitious. NASA has previously held space elevator contests, but most teams struggled to reach a height of tens of meters. Thousands of kilometers might be a bit of a stretch right now.
The Mainichi noted the pods of the elevator would travel at up to 200 kilometers (125 miles) per hour, making the trip to the space station in eight days. The cost of the project is estimated at $90 billion, comparable to the maglev train project connecting Tokyo and Osaka.
So, who knows, maybe this test will spawn a new era of elevators. More likely, it will be an interesting technology demonstration – but one that might not transport us all to the stars just yet.