Teams to take another crack at space elevator

Goal is to build a robotic climber that can hoist itself up on a thin carbon tether 100 meters within 50 seconds.

Last year, eight teams took on a NASA-sponsored challenge to build a so-called space elevator. No one won.

Now, another round of 20 teams will try to win $500,000 from the space agency for building a robotic climber that can hoist itself up on a thin carbon tether, under its own power source, 100 meters within 50 seconds. (Last year, a Canadian team lost the race by 2 seconds.)

The Spaceward Foundation, the nonprofit group that organizes the space elevator competition, said Tuesday that its third annual contest will be held October 19 to 21 in Salt Lake City. It's part of NASA's Centennial Challenges, a series of government-sponsored competitions that support space exploration by encouraging private industry and universities to develop related technologies for cash prizes.

"It'll be twice as hard this year, but we expect someone to win the money," said Ben Shelef, CEO and co-founder of the Spaceward Foundation.

NASA doesn't officially plan to build a space elevator, but the underlying technologies could ultimately be used for future space missions, Shelef said. For example, scientists have discovered water ice in craters on the moon, but to explore these dark cavities would require technologies that don't rely on the sun, such as laser-tracking rovers. To compete in the space elevator competition, teams must race a climber that's powered by beams of energy from the ground, rather than fuel or batteries.

Several teams are building climbers that are powered by microwave and laser beams for this year's competition, Shelef said. Students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan and the University of Alberta are among the contestants.

The Spaceward Foundation also said that this year it will host a Light Racers Championship, which calls on kids and young adults to design and build a beam-powered lunar rover. The prize for that contest is $10,000, and it's also sponsored by NASA.

"Reaching out to the scientists and engineers of the future is the most important thing we can do," Meekk Shelef, president of the Spaceward Foundation, said in a statement.

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