Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
The only material that fitted the profile – the immensely strong graphene derivative known as carbon nanotubes – has yet to be manufactured in lengths exceeding a metre
Wednesday 16 April 2014
They may have mastered self-driving cars and walking robots, but one problem has proved beyond the wits of Google’s engineers – building an elevator into space.
It has emerged that the company’s secretive research and development lab, Google X, seriously explored ways to suspend a tether between Earth and a satellite in space – but were stumped by the limitations of available materials.
The team worked out that they would need something “at least a hundred times stronger than the strongest steel”, according to Dan Piponi, a British mathematician working for Google X.
The only material that fitted the profile – the immensely strong graphene derivative known as carbon nanotubes – has yet to be manufactured in lengths exceeding a metre.
To build a space elevator, Google would have needed a single tether some 62,000 miles long, strung between a base station on the equator and a satellite in geostationary orbit.
Once this structure has been constructed, payloads could be transported into space with virtually zero cost through the use of simple counterweights.
“It would be a massive capital investment,” Rich DeVaul, head of Google X’s Rapid Evaluation team, told the business magazine Fast Company. “It could take you from ground to orbit with a net of basically zero energy. It drives down the space-access costs, operationally, to being incredibly low.”
A report on the topic from the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) in February declared that a space elevator was technologically feasible and could usher in a “renaissance” for space exploration that would transform the Earth. Like Google, though, the IAA was stumped by the lack of available materials.
Google X is home to the internet giant’s “moonshots”: ambitious experiments that must fix a widespread problem in society while also having the potential to affect millions of lives. Employees within Google X have frequently said that the team of 250 proudly embraces ideas that might be considered “science fiction”.
The concept was popularised in the work of science fiction author Arthur C Clarke, but the original idea actually dates back to 1895, when visionary Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published a series of “thought experiments” under the title Dreams of Earth and Sky.
Arthur C Clarke popularised the idea of a space lift (AP)
All of Tsiolkovsky’s essays were concerned with possible ways of escaping the Earth’s gravity, and the Russian was inspired by the recently completed Eiffel Tower to suggest the idea of an impossibly tall building that would stretch out into geostationary orbit.
Unlike modern conceptions of the space elevator, Tsiolkovsky’s idea worked on the principle of “compression” to build his creation (Google X’s space elevator would have used “suspension” instead) but the idea was still essentially the same.
Although Google scientists were defeated before their project even got off the ground (hoverboards too were reportedly discarded due to material limitations,this time with magnets), the company says that the idea was only “put in a deep freeze”.
Science fiction fans will hope they are only awaiting the day when material science catches up with their imagination.
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