Miércoles 31 de Octubre de 2007, Ip nº 214

'Space elevator' breaks up in high winds
Por David Shiga

After a slow day Saturday at the 2007 Space Elevator Games in Farmington, Utah, US, Sunday is shaping up to be much more exciting.

Three teams attempted the climb up a pretend "space elevator" cable using solar-powered vehicles. A real space elevator would use a cable around 100,000 kilometres long to reach far into space. For the purposes of the competition, however, a much smaller tether 100 metres long held by a crane was used.

NASA has promised $500,000 to the team whose vehicle can make the climb at a speed of 2 metres per second. If more than one team achieves this, the team that can carry the most weight on the climb wins.

All three teams used mirrors on the ground to reflect sunlight onto the solar panels attached to the bottom of their vehicles. The first team, from the University of British Columbia, made it up about 75 metres. But their vehicle was moving slowly, much less than 1 metre per second and they ran out of time without having reached the top. (The image at left shows their vehicle lit from below during its climb.)

The second team, called the Technology Tycoons, made it all the way to the top today, but were also much too slow to win the prize.

The third team was by far the most exciting. After a long wait for clouds to clear, the Kansas City Space Pirates finally started their run. A block of solar panels fell off early in the climb, but the vehicle was still able to move quickly, at times topping 2 metres per second. The vehicle reached the top in 1 minute and 18 seconds - too slow to win the prize. (Click on the image below for a video of the climb.)

Still, it was the fastest run so far, and the team looked pretty happy. Then, as the vehicle was descending, strong winds blew in, and the vehicle started shedding more solar panels (click on the image below for a video).

The climber was in rough shape by the time it reached the bottom. Brian Turner, the team captain, told me there were many hours of repairs to do to get the vehicle back in climbing shape. But he said the team might try for another run on Monday.

More climbs are planned for later on Sunday, including a much-anticipated climb by the University of Saskatchewan team, which was the top performer in the 2005 and 2006 competitions. Their vehicle is powered by an infrared laser, so the team doesn't need to worry about whether it is cloudy or not.

I thought the hard hats we were made to wear near the crane were a bit of overkill, but I was glad I had one on when parts started raining from above. No one was hurt, fortunately. Like most people here, I'm looking forward to the University of Saskatchewan's run today. They seem like they have a real shot at winning the $500,000 prize this year.

  21/10/2007. New Scientist Magazine.