Researchers heading into space in the not-too-distant future could be travelling by elevator rather than rocket if Japanese construction giant Obayashi Corporation has its way. The company announced two years ago that it has the capacity to build a space elevator -- and have it up and running by the year 2050.
Speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation this month, the company said that the elevator would reach 96,000km (59,652 miles) into space (for reference, space lies beyond the Kármán Line, at an altitude of 100km, the International Space Station is 330km, and the moon is 384,400km from Earth), and use robotic cars powered by magnetic linear motors (maglev, as seen in high-speed rail lines around Asia and Europe) to ferry cargo and humans to a new space station.
All this, the company said, can be achieved because of carbon nanotechnology.
"The tensile strength is almost a hundred times stronger than steel cable so it's possible," said Obayashi research and development manager Yoji Ishikawa. "Right now we can't make the cable long enough. We can only make 3-centimetre-long nanotubes but we need much more... we think by 2030 we'll be able to do it."
Teams around Japan are working on logistics problems associated with the elevator. A team at Kanagawa University, for example, is working on the problems associated with the robotic cars: how to ascend at varying altitudes and how to brake. If the project is successful, it could massively cut the cost and danger associated with space trips: cargo usually costs around $22,000 per kilogram via shuttle; using Obayashi's space elevator, the cost would be closer to $200, the company said.
Obayashi is not the only company working on the feasibility of a space elevator, which could provide cheap solar power, provide a hub for space exploration and boost space tourism. In 2012, former NASA contractor Michael Laine launched a Kickstarter to raise funds to research the feasibility of a lunar space elevator, raising $110,353.
Building a space elevator, however, will likely require an international effort, and the International Space Elevator Consortium is already attempting to coordinate efforts.
"I don't think one company can make it, we'll need an international organisation to make this big project," Ishikawa agreed.