A laser-powered robotic climber has won $900,000 in a competition designed to spur technology for a future elevator to space.
Building a space elevator would require anchoring a cable on the ground near Earth’s equator and deploying the other end thousands of kilometres into space. The centrifugal force due to Earth’s spin would keep the cable taut so that a robot could climb it and release payloads into orbit.
Though building a space elevator might require an initial investment of billions of dollars, proponents say once constructed, it would make for cheaper trips into space than is possible using rockets. But huge technological hurdles must first be overcome, including how to supply power to the robotic climber.
To that end, NASA offered $2 million in prize money in a competition called thePower Beaming Challenge, in which robotic climbers, powered wirelessly from the ground, attempt to ascend a cable as fast as possible.
Here is a short video of this competition.
Ted Semon, a volunteer with the Spaceward Foundation, a non-profit that organised the competition, and author of the Space Elevator Blog, says the feat shows space elevators are one step closer to getting off the ground. “We’ve done a lot here to demonstrate that this technology is possible,” he told New Scientist. “This is just enormously exciting.”
The winning climber was built by a team called LaserMotive, based in Seattle, Washington. Like the other two vehicles in the competition, it used solar cells to absorb energy from a ground-based infrared laser.