WSJ on space elevators

The Wall Street Journal ran a story on "space elevators" last week. The idea is to launch a geosynchronous satellite with a high-strength, low-weight tether that extends all the way back to Earth and is anchored (to say, an offshore oil derrick). Then, you can send materials back and forth using a climber contraption.
A rocket would take two spools, each the size of a living room with 31,000 miles of ribbon wrapped around it, to an orbit of 22,000 miles. Both would be unrolled, one being allowed to waft back to earth, the other pulled up and away from earth by a spacecraft and then anchored with a weight at the end. Then they'd be joined in the middle.

The bottom portion would be secured onto an oil rig-like platform located along the equator, 1,500 miles west of Mexico, a location chosen for its uneventful weather.

The ribbon would weigh 800 tons, or about 26 pounds a mile. Were it to break, the top segment would float away into space while the bottom would fall to earth. Nothing you'd want to be on hand to see, of course, "but nothing that would threaten the planet," said Edwards.


About Mark Frauenfelder

Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the founding editor-in-chief of MAKE. He is editor-in-chief of Cool Tools and co-founder of Wink Books. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects

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15 Responses to WSJ on space elevators

  1. Anonymous says:

    @ #2
    I think the physicists with ph.D.s know what they’re doing… :rllys:

    And I’m quite sure that next to the counterweight (captured asteroid for example) and the “cables” (144,000 km of them in one design, others differ), the payload weight would be almost a joke.

    Check the wikipedia article on space elevators, it is quite extensive nd ‘m sr ppl hv md bttr mdls thn yr ghtt str-jx ty.

    Fr th lzy: n sht t’s gng t b strng.

  2. Anonymous says:

    a platform 1,500 miles west of Mexico would not be on the equator. The equator is is much further south. You could go 1,500 miles west of Ecuador, about 700 miles west of the Galapagos Islands, but that is is long way to move your platform

  3. Ivan says:

    Actually, a broken space elevator wouldn’t do much harm at all. A substance that light has a very low terminal velocity. That which didn’t burn up would be broken into pieces and float to the ground.

    The whole point is that the ribbon is incredibly thin.

  4. Teresa Nielsen Hayden/Moderator says:

    That’s a nice multivalent comment, Anonymous #13; everyone can assume it’s addressed to them.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Richard Feynman is my idol and I completely love simple demos that demonstrate a bigger picture.

    The models still need to be accurate, and from a quick look at the Astro Jax toy, it looks as if the payload would be as massive as the counterwieght, when in reality it would be several orders of magnitude less.

    I’m all for quick ‘n’ dirty demo models, but it is a bit bold to say that “the physics are a little off” when:

    1. You Are Not A Physicist (IANAP?)
    2. You didn’t RTFA
    3. Your argument is grounded solely on your experience with some toy that hardly approximates the actual scenario

    Let’s keep an open mind and do some research before jumping to conclusions.

    (Also, “the physics of this whole thing” are described in excruciating detail on many, many sources available on the internet. To say that centrifugal “force” was overlooked shows a complete lack of effort.)

  6. Anonymous says:

    The concept was advanced (I don’t know if for the first time) by Arthur C Clarke in his novel “The fountains of Paradise”.

    Clarke was in fact the first to come up with the idea of geosynchronous satellites.

  7. Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey says:

    Odd that the Wall Street Journal would do an article on space elevators without mentioning Liftport, the company that has been attempting to make a business out of space-elevator development. They ran into serious trouble with their financing earlier this year, but may not be entirely dead yet.


  8. strider_mt2k says:

    Wow, Anonymous is it?

    If you were shooting for coming off like an asshole I think you pretty much nailed it right there.

    Physics is for everybody, and for everybody to understand in their own way.

    “Ghetto Astro-Jax toy” indeed.

    Forget about that whole bargain-basement “getting hit on the head with an apple” thing then.

    That guy must have shit for brains, right?
    Fruit, how very low brow of him.

    I don’t think I’d want to be associated with your comment either.

  9. Teresa Nielsen Hayden/Moderator says:

    A long time ago, a friend of mine with an impressive science background taught me to use “after that, it’s just a matter of engineering” as a joke — as in, “Yes, I’ve determined that there’s enough mass in the Solar System to build what I’ve proposed; and after that, it’s just a matter of engineering.”

    It’s never a bad idea to think about the potential problems. And if simple demos using the simple materials at hand was good enough for Feynman, it’s good enough for me.

  10. deathcakes says:


    He does have a point though. Compared to the total mass of the system, the mass of the payload is a very small amount, having very little effect on the center of mass and the amount of tension the elevator has to put up with etc… Unless you happen to be loading and unloading asteroids, which frankly isn’t likely.

  11. strider_mt2k says:

    I’ll also agree that it will be strong.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I’ve always thought the physics of this whole thing were a little off. A perfect example is a toy called Astro Jax. It’s an interesting little skill toy with 2 balls anchored to the ends of a string, and a third that slides freely between them. The whole concept is playing with the physics that moving load has on the whole spinning system.

    If you should get your hands on a set, and imagine the one ball in your hand as the oil rig, the ball on the far end as the satellite, and the middle ball as the load, you’ll start to be horrified at this whole idea.

    The other thing is that as the load reaches the end of the tether, I assume it actually exerts more force on the anchor than it did when it was closer to it due to centrifugal force. I don’t see this handling anything larger than a small satellite, if it can even handle that.

  13. Teresa Nielsen Hayden/Moderator says:

    I don’t mean to sound antagonistic, but how can you say someone else ought not post here if they don’t have the proper credentials, when you’re posting anonymously?

    Correcting someone else’s misapprehension and explaining how they’ve gotten it wrong is a valuable addition to the conversation. Doing it contemptuously, not so good.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Arthur Clarke did not, in fact, invent the idea of a geosynchronously orbiting satellite. Tsiolkovsky, wrote about it before 1920. Another Russian, writing decades earlier (whose name escapes me) may have priority. Clarke gets credit for the idea of putting a radio transponder on such a satellite. That idea had to wait until there was such a thing as a radio transponder.

    My advice to anybody building one of these things is: make sure it has a very high electrical resistance.

  15. Anonymous says:

    ay caramba man – y’all wastin your time bangin on the idiots – they never listen.

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