“Hold that door! Can you punch floor 23,115, please?”
A laser-powered robotic climber has won $900,000 in a competition designed to spur technology for a future elevator to space.
Building a space elevator would require anchoring a cable on the ground near Earth’s equator and deploying the other end thousands of kilometres into space. The centrifugal force due to Earth’s spin would keep the cable taut so that a robot could climb it and release payloads into orbit.
Though building a space elevator might require an initial investment of billions of dollars, proponents say once constructed, it would make for cheaper trips into space than is possible using rockets. But huge technological hurdles must first be overcome, including how to supply power to the robotic climber.
To that end, NASA offered $2 million in prize money in a competition called the Power Beaming Challenge, in which robotic climbers, powered wirelessly from the ground, attempt to ascend a cable as fast as possible.
Now, a robotic climber has made a prize-winning ascent worth $900,000, making it the first to win money in the competition, which has occurred annually since 2005.
Ted Semon, a volunteer with the Spaceward Foundation, a non-profit that organised the competition, and author of the Space Elevator Blog, says the feat shows space elevators are one step closer to getting off the ground. “We’ve done a lot here to demonstrate that this technology is possible,” he told New Scientist. “This is just enormously exciting.”
The winning climber was built by a team called LaserMotive, based in Seattle, Washington. Like the other two vehicles in the competition, it used solar cells to absorb energy from a ground-based infrared laser.
On Wednesday, LaserMotive fired up its laser, powering the climber to ascend 900 metres up a cable suspended from a helicopter at Edwards Air Force Base in Mojave, California.
The climber reached the top in just over 4 minutes, for an average speed of 3.7 metres per second. The team’s climber repeated the feat at a slightly higher speed of 3.9 metres per second on Thursday.
On Friday, two other teams failed in their final attempted climbs. That means LaserMotive will receive the entire $900,000 NASA set aside for climbers that could make the climb faster than 2 metres per second.
The remaining $1.1 million in NASA prize money was reserved for climbs faster than 5 metres per second, which none of the competitors was able to achieve.
A climber entered by a team from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, stalled just a few metres up the cable in its final attempt on Friday and was unable to continue its climb.
A climber from a third team, called the Kansas City Space Pirates, also achieved only partial climbs.
NASA was expected to officially recognise LaserMotive as the winner of the $900,000 prize in an award ceremony later on Friday.
Though a space elevator remains a distant prospect, NASA is interested in wireless power transmission for other applications, like beaming power to lunar rovers travelling in shadowed craters, where solar energy is unavailable.