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Is a Space Elevator Possible Using Today's Technology?
By MATT MILANO
One of the biggest challenges to space travel is escaping Earth's orbit, but space elevators, long a staple of science fiction, promise an innovative way to overcome it. A long cable anchored to Earth at the equator would help move people, supplies, and vehicles into space, and by having a counterbalance at the far end of the tether, the centrifugal forces would overcome Earth's gravity, making the cable remain taut and vertical.
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Although materials strong enough to build a traditional space elevator do not yet exist, scientists have been working on making the space elevator a reality using current technologies and materials. The most promising method is the multi-cable method proposed by George Zhu, a professor of mechanical engineering who has co-authored a study on the idea.
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To keep the elevator stable and prevent cross-winds in Earth's atmosphere from buffeting it about, the two cables would be suspended above the Earth's surface, further reducing stresses, and a rocket will be required to reach the lower level of the elevator. While Zhu believes this design is possible in the 22nd century, the project's lead, Brendan Quine, seems more optimistic about the time frame.
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On the other hand, the reverse space elevator method, proposed by Zephyr Penoyre and Emily Sandford, implies that the cable would pass through the Lagrange point — the point between the Earth and Moon where their gravitational forces cancel out. This would be the ideal spot to build a "base camp," where construction projects and scientific experiments could be safely conducted with no gravitational forces pulling in any direction.
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While the reverse space elevator would not be as useful as traditional proposals for breaking free of Earth's orbit, it would still reduce the cost and challenges of traveling to and from the Moon, making colonization a very real possibility. However, using these two methods, space elevators can be built entirely with materials — such as titanium and aluminum — that are widely available, making it a very real possibility using today's technology.
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