October 7, 2007

Elevator to the Moon

We live in an interesting age for the space enthusiast. NASA is setting their aims at landing man on Mars, building a lunar outpost, and adding even more enhancements to the international space station. The primary problem of establishing colonies on other worlds is simple: the escape velocity of the Earth.

The escape velocity of the Earth, for lack of a wordy, tedious explanation of the concept, is the amount of force required to exit the gravitational pull of the Earth. The escape velocity is the same for all objects, however heavier objects obviously need more energy to accelerate at escape velocity. Objects escaping Earth's atmosphere have to travel at nearly 11 km/s. However, there is a way to get objects into space at a much slower speed.

The concept of a space elevator is not new, nor is it unfeasible. The idea is simple: make a high-strength cable, tether it to Earth, tether it to a counterweight in geosynchronous orbit, and have an "elevator" that successfully traverses the cable.

A space elevator is a cost-effective solution to the problem of escape velocity. Construction materials, say for a lunar outpost or potential Mars colony, could be "launched" from the near zero-gravity of the counterweights orbital platform. The escape velocity here is near non-existent. The cost of fuel alone would eventually pay for the construction of such a device. Space shuttle missions would take off from the platform instead of Earth, eliminating the need for the gigantic fuel-guzzling rockets, currently the only devices capable of breaking Earth's gravitational field.

Ironically, I believe that the very thing this concept will save, money, is what keeps it from happening. Estimates start at $5 billion for a primitive tether, which is a large chunk of change for any country. Right? Wrong! Come on people, the wireless ringtone industry generates exactly $5 billion a year.

I don't know about you guys, but I'd much rather have a lunar colony than the newest Beyonce ringtone.