November 8, 2009

$900k Prize Awarded In ‘Space Elevator’ Games

A Seattle team has won a $900,000 prize in a NASA-supported competition to develop the concept of a space elevator.

The winning team's robotic machine charged up nearly 3,000 feet of cable dangling from a helicopter.

Powered by a ground-based laser pointed up at the machine's photo voltaic cells, which convert the light into electricity, the LaserMotive completed one of its ascents in just three minutes and 48 seconds "“ fast enough to secure the second place prize.

The three-day competition sought to encourage development of a theory conceived in the 1960s and popularized in 1979 by Arthur C. Clarke's novel "The Fountains of Paradise."

Such space elevators are seen by some as a way to reach space without the risk and expense of traditional rockets. 

The idea is that electrically powered vehicles would move up and down a cable anchored to a ground structure and stretching up thousands of miles to an object in geosynchronous orbit.  In these types of orbits, objects such as communications satellites are able to remain over a fixed spot on the Earth's surface.

Andy Petro, program manager of NASA's Centennial Challenges, presented the prize to LaserMotive LLC during a ceremony at Dryden Flight Research Facility on Edwards Air Force Base in California.

The contest required competitors' vehicles to successfully reach the top, with competitors who completed their climbs at two levels of speed being eligible to win a prize.   LaserMotive could have been awarded $2 million if its robot had climbed faster.

Missouri-based KC Space Pirates and the University of Saskatchewan's Space Design Team were the two other competing teams.  However, neither was awarded a cash prize as their machines did not reach the top.

While the fourth Space Elevator Games addressed a small step in the engineering challenging of the concept, it did not deal with the larger issues of whether physics, materials technology and economics would ever allow such a space elevator to become a reality.

"I think it was an ideal Centennial Challenges competition," Petro told the Associated Press.

"We had students, entrepreneurs and independent inventors. It's a very difficult challenge. It's taken the teams four years for anyone to win."

Thomas Nugent, a LaserMotive principal, said the company thought the competition would prove the concept of "power beaming," or transmitting energy by laser over long distances.

Nugent said there are a number of immediate applications for the machine, including  powering remote areas of military bases or operating electrically powered unmanned aircraft for long periods of time.  Although he personally does not think a space elevator would work on Earth, it may be practical for the moon or Mars, Nugent said.

"It took a lot of years of hard work by just a great team of people who have understanding families."


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