Beyond Rocket Science

It’s not getting as much press as the “X Prize” for private rocket launches, but NASA has quietly been running a contest for work toward a “space elevator,” offering up to $2 million for a scheme to transmit power to a small robot climbing a 1km cable. Yesterday, the team from LaserMotive, including certified rocket scientist and friend of the blog Jordin Kare, successfully powered a robot up a 900m cable using diode laser arrays to send power to solar panels on the robot. They managed an average speed of 3.73 m/s, which doesn’t get them the full $2 million prize, but qualified them for the $900,000 prize for an average speed above 2 m/s.

There are still two other teams in the competition, which will continue today. The Kansas City Space Pirates team got within 50 m of the top, but not fast enough to be in the money, and a team from the University of Saskatchewan has yet to compete at all. LaserMotive can apparently take another crack as well, and over on Twitter, Mary Kay Kare says that Jordin has some ideas of how to speed their climber up, and go for the grand prize.

This is a long, long way from an actual space elevator, of course– working out the power beaming is arguably less of a challenge than finding a material to build the thing out of, which nobody has come close to doing. Still, it’s cool to see, and a reminder that while rockets are flashier, there’s work going on on other ways to get stuff into space in an economical manner.

3 thoughts on “Beyond Rocket Science

  1. My understanding is that with proven technology the so called super-gun may be the least costly way to launch to orbit on a $ per ton basis. The idea goes back to the 19th century. The basic design goes back to the 30s and the Germans built a smaller version, V-3, during WW2. It is essentially just a really big gun with multiple breaches and valves to allow additional boost charges to act on the projectile as it moves down a very long barrel. Iraq was building one before the Gulf War.

    Perhaps it would be an interesting subject for exploration. Lots of math to root around in. Any thoughts or insights on the concept?

  2. The space elevator and a number of other equally adventurous concepts are as appealing as they are “out there”, but my personal favorite these days is the mass-driver or one of its varaitions. The contours of certain valleys within the Great Basin would be almost ideal…out by Area 51 coincidentally… are all but begging for it.

  3. Note that the part of the contest that LM is competing in is Power Beaming. That has multifarious uses above and beyond space elevators. Power without wires!


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