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Space elevator isn't going anywhere yet

For the third year in a row, no team rises to the challenge of building a robotic climber and a vertical tether that could one day comprise a workable space elevator.

Turns out it's not so easy to build and race a space elevator. Who knew?

For the third time in three years, no team has claimed the prize money in two NASA-sponsored technology challenges to build a robotic climber and a vertical tether that could one day comprise a workable space elevator. In theory, that elevator would transport supplies from the ground to space without expensive fuel or batteries.

Despite the letdown, were hopeful, and the roughly $1 million in prize money will roll over to next year's events.

"The good news is that technologies to build a space elevator are possible and are being developed now," said Ted Semon, spokesman for the Spaceward Foundation, which hosted NASA challenges at the Spaceward Games 2007, which began Oct. 17 and ended Monday in Salt Lake City.

The first contest, called the , required teams to build a robotic climber that could scale a tether 100 meters tall in less than a minute. The chief requirement also was that the climber received energy from a ground source, rather than fuel or batteries. The second challenge, the Strong Tether Challenge, called on teams to build a robust tether of materials that could one day be the conveyer belt into space. MIT, for example, built a tether of carbon nanotubes, a strong new material, but the university team still didn't win.

The contests are 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. NASA doesn't officially plan to build a space elevator, but the underlying technologies could ultimately be used for future space missions. 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.

NASA is also interested in developing carbon nanotube materials for other applications, Semon said. "In the next two to three years, the strength of carbon nanotube materials will increase."

Bad weather in Utah last week delayed the NASA challenges and could have caused technical glitches, according to organizers. But with clear skies Monday, three finalists for the climber challenge--the Kansas City Space Pirates, the University of Saskatchewan (USST) and the Technology Tycoons (high-school kids from California)--were scheduled to perform two tests each of their self-built robotic climbers. (The three finalists emerged from eight teams that showed up to compete.)

Over the weekend, the Space Pirates climber, which draws power from solar cells and mirrors, made it up the tether in one minute 18 seconds. That feat encouraged organizers to believe that they would name a winner Monday.

But the Space Pirates had technical problems and stalled half-way up the tether on their first attempt that day. Before their second try, the ribbon snapped and delayed the run. The team eventually completed the race, but over the allotted time of 2 meters per second.

The Technology Tycoons climber was also unsuccessful. "The wind caught (the climber) and flipped it on it's side when it was most of the way up," Semon said.

USST's climber, whose solar cells are charged by a laser on the ground, failed to move up the ribbon on its first try Monday, but later it had a solid run, according to Semon. It couldn't meet the allotted time limit.

"USST was just a few seconds too slow to claim the prize. But they greatly increased their speed over last year (approximately double) and are fulfilling NASA's and Spaceward's goal of advancing the state of the art," Semon wrote.