NASA offers $4M in prizes for bold technology that leads to space elevator

A space elevator

NASA today announced two ambitious Centennial Challenges that it hopes will garner more powerful wireless technology and build ever-stronger tethers for linking sometimes huge objects in space.  

The 2009 Power Beaming and Tether Challenges goes hand-in-hand with the development of future solar power satellites and a futuristic project known as the Space Elevator.  Space elevators are in a nutshell stationary tethers rotating with the Earth, held up by a weight at its end, and serving as a track on which electric vehicles called "climbers" can travel up and down carrying about 10 tons of payload, according to The Spaceward Foundation which is working with NASA on these challenges.

Centennial Challenges are NASA's program of prize contests to stimulate innovation and competition in solar system exploration and ongoing NASA mission areas, the agency said. In the past it has held such challenges to build lunar landers, personal aircraft and astronaut gloves. 

NASA defines the Power Beaming Challenge like this:

"This challenge is a practical demonstration of wireless power transmission. Teams build mechanical devices that can propel themselves up a vertical cable. The power supply for the device is not self-contained but remains on the ground. The technical challenge is to receive the transmitted power and transform it to mechanical motion, efficiently and reliably. Practical systems employing power beaming would have a wide range of applications from lunar rovers and space propulsion systems to airships above the Earth. Wireless power transmission is also a key component of proposed space solar power systems."

This year competitors will be expected to drive their laser-powered devices up a cable one kilometer high. This promises to be the most visually impressive Centennial Challenge event to date, NASA said.

NASA says that in previous beamed power competitions, held in 2006 and 2007 teams failed to meet the ambitious criteria to win the $2 million prize.  

For the tether challenge:  In order to win the $2 million prize, the tether must exceed the strength of the best available commercial tether by 50% with no increase in mass. A tether that can win this challenge would be a major step forward in materials technology. Such improved materials would have wide range of applications in space and on Earth.

According to the Spaceward Foundation, the single most difficult task in building the Space Elevator is achieving the required tether strength-to-weight ratio -- in other words, developing a material that is both strong enough and light enough to support the 60,000 mile long tether. Compared to the best commercially available tether, you would need a material that is almost 25 times better - about as great a leap as from wood to metal.

As you might expect there are myriad rules and regulations for entering and competing in both challenges.

A variety of private teams such as LaserMotive and university researchers from University of Michigan for example are expected to compete for the prizes.

The 2009 Power Beaming and Tether Challenges will be held at the Innovative Science and Technology Experimental Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida between April 29 through May 1, 2009.

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