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McGill students compete in elevator race to space for $1-million prize

A figment of ’70s science fiction may soon become a 21st century reality – and McGill students are taking part in the research to make that happen.

Taking an elevator straight from the Earth’s surface directly to outer space just might be the next way to travel. The elevator would climb along a long, paper-thin cable that connects a base station on Earth to a counterweight in space, such as a satellite or space station. Like whipping a ball around on a string, the Earth’s gravitational pull would keep the cable taut enough for an elevator car to climb it. If realized, the space elevator has the potential to carry people and goods to space more cheaply and safely than conventional rocket ships.

In the depths of the McConnell Engineering design laboratories, the McGill Space Elevator Team (MSET) is updating their elevator climber design and thinks they might have what it takes to win the $1.1-million prize offered by NASA for building and testing a prototype elevator. The 2010 Space Elevator Games, run by the Spaceward Foundation, challenges teams to build a climber using wireless power that then climbs a one-kilometre cable at a minimum speed of five metres per second. According to the Spaceward Foundation web site, “this is about the height a jetliner is at when the cabin crew asks you to put away your laptop.”

“That’s why we’re using a laser,” says Alex Gravenstein, current team captain and member since 2006, when MSET was founded. According to Gravenstein, the team now owns the most powerful laser on campus, which is only one component of their device. The McGill design uses a laser to aim light to a solar panel on a mobile climber, which then turns the light into electricity to power a simple motor for the device to climb. Other components include tracking software to target the laser beams accurately, and automatic “kill switches,” should anything go wrong.

The MSET is currently building and testing each component individually. Once they put the parts together, the team plans to test the system on campus next month, using a strong theatre spotlight and a steel cable just outside of the MacDonald-Harrington building.

With 18 current members on the team – ranging from a diversity of faculties that includes engineering, science, arts, education, and management – MSET is also currently recruiting more students, to help especially with finances, approaching sponsors, promotions, and recruitment.

So when can we expect to punch the “Moon” destination button in an elevator? Predictions for a full space elevator vary. Some proponents claim within the next 70 years, with companies already beginning serious projects.

Arun Misra, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, runs a computational lab that simulates some of the dynamics involved with the space elevator. The major issues with the technology, according to Misra, are finding the right material for a strong and long enough cable and protecting the elevator from space debris that severs the fibres.

Gravenstein agreed. “The biggest issue to overcome is what tether they’re going to use,” he said. “But technology is increasing exponentially.”

There is hope with the advent of carbon nanotubes, with a string the thickness of a single thread 50 times stronger than steel. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make continuous chains of these nanotubes – recent achievements have been less than five centimetres.

Despite the engineering obstacles, there seems to be long-term hope for the technology. “A lot of people still think the idea is pretty crazy, but anything we can do and the more we work on it, the more feasible these ideas become,” said Andrew Higgins, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and faculty sponsor for the team.

“Something like that may exist in your children’s lifetime or my grandchildren’s lifetime,” Misra predicts. “Lots of things we now have used to be only science fiction.”

Interested in joining the team or learning more about the technology? Check out the McGill Space Elevator Team web site: