Could humans build a tall tower or giant rope to space? | Science News for Students

Could humans build a tall tower or giant rope to space?

Ad Astra’s massive space antenna isn’t real, but scientists do think about building big to reach the stars
Sep 20, 2019 — 6:30 am EST
an illustration of a conceptual space elevator

Scientists have been thinking up technologies that could take humans to the stars without rockets. A giant tower would probably sink into the planet. A cable that reaches into orbit could work — but only if researchers can find a strong enough material to build it.

 metamorworks/iStock/Getty Images Plus; adapted by L. Steenblik Hwang

Astronaut Roy McBride peers out over the Earth at the start of the new sci-fi flick Ad Astra. It’s not an unusual view for him. He does mechanical work atop an international space antenna. This spindly structure stretches up toward the stars. But this day, McBride’s sweet view is interrupted by an explosion that hurtles him off the antenna. He plummets from the blackness of space toward Earth until his parachute opens, slowing his descent.

In the movie, the space antenna looks like pipes stacked upon pipes that reach into space. But could anyone build something that tall? And can people actually climb up from Earth into space?

A tall order

There’s no set line between Earth and space. Where space begins depends on whom you ask. But most scientists agree that space starts somewhere between 80 and 100 kilometers (50 and 62 miles) above Earth’s surface.

Building a skinny tower that tall isn’t possible. Anyone who’s stacked up a tower of Legos knows that at some point the structure won’t be sturdy enough to hold its own weight. It eventually tilts to the side, before crashing and scattering its bricks. A better strategy is to build something like a pyramid that narrows as it grows in height.

a sattelite tethered to the shuttle Atlantis
The idea of using long ribbons in space has been around for a while. In 1992, this tethered satellite system was sent out from the space shuttle Atlantis. The shuttle successfully dragged the system around, but it didn’t reach its full potential. The cable was supposed to be 20 kilometers (12.5 miles), but it hit a snag when deploying and only 256 meters (840 feet) were released.
TSS-1/STS-46 Crew/NASA

But even if we could build a tower that tall, there’d be problems, says Markus Landgraf. He’s a physicist at the European Space Agency. He’s based in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. A tower that could reach space would be too heavy for the Earth to support, he says. Earth’s crust isn’t very deep. It averages only around 30 kilometers (17 miles). And the mantle below is a bit squishy. The tower’s mass would push too hard on the Earth’s surface. “It would basically create a ditch,” Landgraf says. And, he adds, “It would keep doing so over thousands of years. It would go deeper and deeper. It would not be pretty.”

So physicists have concocted another solution — one that turns the tower approach on its head. Some scientists have proposed hanging a ribbon in Earth’s orbit and dangling its end down to the surface. Then people could climb up into space instead of blasting off in rockets.

 Going up

This concept is called the “space elevator.” It’s an idea first floated by a Russian scientist in the late 1800s. Since then, space elevators have shown up in many science fiction tales. But some scientists take the idea seriously.

To stay in orbit, the elevator would have to be a lot longer than 100 kilometers — more like 100,000 kilometers (62,000 miles) long. That’s roughly a quarter of the way from Earth’s surface to the moon. 

The end of the giant ribbon swinging around the planet would need to be in geosynchronous orbit. That means that it stays positioned above the same spot on the Earth’s surface and rotates at the same speed as Earth.

“The way it stays up there is exactly the same as if you put a rock on the end of a string and tossed it around your head. There's a tremendous force — centrifugal [Sen-TRIF-uh-gul] force — pulling the rock outward,” explains Peter Swan. Swan is the director of the International Space Elevator Consortium. He’s based in Paradise Valley, Ariz. The group is promoting (you guessed it) the development of a space elevator.

Just like the rock on the string, a counterweight at the space end of the elevator could help it stay taught. But whether one is needed would depend on the rope’s weight and length.

Swan and other ISEC members are working to make the space elevator a reality because it could make it easier and cheaper to send people and equipment into space. Swan estimates that today it would cost around $10,000 to send a pound of stuff to the moon. But with a space elevator, he says, the cost might fall to near $100 per pound.

Next stop: space

To leave the planet, a vehicle called a climber could attach to the ribbon. It would grip the ribbon on both sides with a pair of wheels or belts, much like a treadmill. They would move and pull people or cargo up the ribbon. You might think of it, says Bradley Edwards, as being “essentially like a vertical railroad.” Edwards is physicist based in Seattle, Wash. He wrote reports for NASA in 2000 and 2003 about the likelihood of developing space elevators.

A person could reach low-Earth orbit in around an hour, Edwards says. Traveling to the end of the tether would take a couple of weeks.

“You get in and you barely feel it move … it’d be sort of like a normal elevator,” Edward says. Then you’d see the anchor station, where the ribbon is tied to Earth, dropping away. You might start slow, but the elevator could reach speeds of between 160 to 320 kilometers per hour (100 to 200 miles per hour).

The view would change from watching clouds and lightning over the Earth’s surface to seeing the curve of the Earth. You’d pass the International Space Station. “And by the time you get to geosynchronous [orbit], you can put your hand up and cover the Earth,” Edwards says.

But you wouldn’t have to stop there. Because of how the end of the elevator is being flung around, you could use it to slingshot yourself to another planet. This is just like swinging a rock on a string around your head. If you let go of the string, the rock goes flying. “The same thing works with a space elevator,” Edwards says. In this case,  the destination could be the moon, Mars or even Jupiter.

Spinning a yarn

The biggest challenge of building a space elevator may be the 100,000-kilometer-long tether. It would have to be incredibly strong to handle the gravitational and centrifugal forces pulling on it.

The steel used in tall buildings wouldn’t work for a space elevator cable. You’d need a higher mass of steel than all the mass in the universe, Landgraf noted in a 2013 TEDx talk.

Instead, physicists are looking to carbon nanotubes. “Carbon nanotubes are one of the strongest materials we know about,” says chemical engineer Virginia Davis. Davis works at Auburn University in Alabama. Her research focuses on carbon nanotubes and graphene, another carbon material. These are nanoscale materials, with at least one dimension around one thousandth the thickness of a human hair.

The structure of carbon nanotubes resembles a chain link fence that’s been rolled into a tube. Instead of being made of wire, carbon nanotubes are made only of carbon atoms, Davis explains. Carbon nanotubes and graphene are “way stronger than most other materials, especially given that they’re really super lightweight,” she says.

“We already can make fibers and cables and ribbons out of carbon nanotubes,” Davis says. But no one has made anything out of carbon nanotubes or graphene that even approaches tens of thousands of kilometers yet.

Edwards estimated that the strength the cable would need to have a strength of around 63 gigapascals. That’s a huge number, thousands of times higher than the strength of steel. It’s dozens of times more than some of the toughest materials known, such as the Kevlar used in bulletproof vests. In theory, carbon nanotubes’ strength reaches far past 63 gigapascals. But only in 2018 did researchers make a bundle of carbon nanotubes that surpassed that.

The strength of a massive ribbon, though, would not only depend on the material used but also on how it is woven. Defects, such as missing atoms in the carbon nanotubes could also affect overall strength, Davis says, as well as other materials used in the ribbon. And, if successfully built, the space elevator would have to withstand all manner of threats from lightning strikes to collisions with space junk.  

“Certainly, there's a long way to go,” says Davis. “But a lot of things that we used to think of a science fiction, which is where this idea started, have become science fact.”

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

antenna     (plural: antennae) In biology: Either of a pair of long, thin sensory appendages on the heads of insects, crustaceans and some other arthropods. (in physics) Devices for picking up (receiving) electromagnetic energy.

astronaut     Someone trained to travel into space for research and exploration.

atom     The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.

carbon     The chemical element having the atomic number 6. It is the physical basis of all life on Earth. Carbon exists freely as graphite and diamond. It is an important part of coal, limestone and petroleum, and is capable of self-bonding, chemically, to form an enormous number of chemically, biologically and commercially important molecules.

carbon nanotube     A nanoscale, tube-shaped material, made from carbon that conducts heat and electricity well.

centrifugal force     A force that seems to pull a rotating body — or something on a rotating object (such as a rider of an amusement park ride) — away from the center of rotation.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

chemical engineer     A researcher who uses chemistry to solve problems related to the production of food, fuel, medicines and many other products.

consortium     A group or association of independent organizations.

dimension     Descriptive features of something that can be measured, such as length, width or time.

Earth’s crust     The outermost layer of Earth. It is relatively cold and brittle.

fiber     Something whose shape resembles a thread or filament.

graphene     A superthin, superstrong material made from a single-atom-thick layer of carbon atoms that are linked together.

gravity     The force that attracts anything with mass, or bulk, toward any other thing with mass. The more mass that something has, the greater its gravity.

International Space Station     An artificial satellite that orbits Earth. Run by the United States and Russia, this station provides a research laboratory from which scientists can conduct experiments in biology, physics and astronomy — and make observations of Earth.

Kevlar     A super-strong plastic fiber developed by DuPont in the 1960s and initially sold in the early 1970s. It’s stronger than steel, but weighs much less, and won’t melt.

laser     A device that generates an intense beam of coherent light of a single color. Lasers are used in drilling and cutting, alignment and guidance, in data storage and in surgery.

mantle     (in geology) The thick layer of the Earth beneath its outer crust. The mantle is semi-solid and generally divided into an upper and lower mantle.

mass     A number that shows how much an object resists speeding up and slowing down — basically a measure of how much matter that object is made from.

mechanical     Having to do with the devices that move, including tools, engines and other machines (even, potentially, living machines); or something caused by the physical movement of another thing.

NASA     Short for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Created in 1958, this U.S. agency has become a leader in space research and in stimulating public interest in space exploration. It was through NASA that the United States sent people into orbit and ultimately to the moon. It also has sent research craft to study planets and other celestial objects in our solar system.

orbit     The curved path of a celestial object or spacecraft around a star, planet or moon. One complete circuit around a celestial body.

peer     (verb) To look into something, searching for details.

physicist     A scientist who studies the nature and properties of matter and energy.

planet     A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and has cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood.

science fiction     A field of literary or filmed stories that take place against a backdrop of fantasy, usually based on speculations about how science and engineering will direct developments in the distant future. The plots in many of these stories focus on space travel, exaggerated changes attributed to evolution or life in (or on) alien worlds.

solar cell     A device that converts solar energy to electricity.

star     The basic building block from which galaxies are made. Stars develop when gravity compacts clouds of gas. When they become dense enough to sustain nuclear-fusion reactions, stars will emit light and sometimes other forms of electromagnetic radiation. The sun is our closest star.

strategy     A thoughtful and clever plan for achieving some difficult or challenging goal.

tether     A tie or cord that loosely anchors some object to a semi-fixed position. Or the process of tying some object to a cord that will keep it loosely affixed to that position. (Consider the child’s game tether ball, whereby a cord it attached to a ball on one end and an anchoring pole on the other end.)

universe     The entire cosmos: All things that exist throughout space and time. It has been expanding since its formation during an event known as the Big Bang, some 13.8 billion years ago (give or take a few hundred million years).

vertical     A term for the direction of a line or plane that runs up and down, as the vertical post for a streetlight does. It’s the opposite of horizontal, which would run parallel to the ground.

Further Reading

Report: B.C. Edwards and Eureka Scientific. NIAC phase II study. March 1, 2003.

Journal: B.C. Edwards et al. Design and deployment of a space elevator. Acta Astronautica Vol. 47, November 2000. doi: 10.1016/S0094-5765(00)00111-9

Report: B.C. Edwards and Eureka Scientific. NIAC phase I study. 2000.