For millennia humans have looked up into the sky wondering what was out there, wishing that they could understand more about the vast expanse that is our universe. From this fascination was born several science fiction niches and stories that only served to run the imagination of new generations and leaving them to dream about space and all its intricacies. One of the many technological feats discussed and theorized throughout science fiction is the space elevator, a type of transportation system that would permit us to travel up a cable through our atmosphere and eventually into space.
A relatively simple design consisting of a cable, a vehicle and a counterweight set in geostationary orbit, a space elevator seems like a fairly easy project to accomplish. The cable would be anchored at a set point on the equator, with the other end of the cable firmly attached to a counterweight over 35,000 kilometres above in space. Thanks to the laws of physics, the cable would be taut and under tension, enabling a cable-based vehicle to travel the length of it.
This idea for a space elevator is over a century old and has only changed slightly since having been originally theorized by Soviet rocket scientist and astronautic theorist Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky in 1895. Whilst Tsiolkovsky imagined a free-standing tower that could compress like an accordion being able to reach the far reaches of geostationary orbit, it wasn’t until 1959 that his particular concept was put aside in favour of a cable-based structure. Although the design has changed, our ability to build a space elevator is still beyond our reach.
Despite the massive advancements in technology and science since 1895, we are still no closer to being able to fulfil Tsiolkovsky ’s project. It has been accepted that so far, the materials needed to build this elevator – namely the cable itself – do not exist. As one can imagine, the properties required of whatever materials used for the construction of the space elevator would need to be incredibly strong, but they’d also need to be relatively light.
There have been discussion about potential materials, most of which are currently not in mass production or haven’t left a laboratory environment. The dream isn’t dead though, as scientists continue to theorize a plan for a potential space elevator, they have found that the weaker gravity fields of the Moon and Mars would be able to accommodate an elevator with currently available materials such as Kevlar.