Going Up: Could Partial Space Elevators Take Us Into Space?

Space Elevator Study Partial

A trip to the moon on gossamer strings? A "partial" space elevator that could carry satellites to geosynchronous orbit might be just the ticket. (See also: "Escaping Earth: Could a Space Elevator Work?")

A space elevator untethered to Earth, with both of its ends hanging in space, might cut the costs of space travel to high orbit by 40 percent, researchers report in a new Acta Astronautica study.

Inspired by science fiction maven Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 novel, The Fountains of Paradise, scientists have long studied the concept of a full space elevator, which would stretch from an equatorial spot on Earth's surface into space about a quarter of the distance to the moon. A partial space elevator would be less than half as long and wouldn't need to be anchored to Earth.

"I think in parallel to full space elevators, partial space elevators are definitely worth exploring more," says space engineer Stephen Cohen, a physics professor at Vanier College in Montreal, Canada, and author of The Engineer's Pulse blog, who wasn't involved in the new study.

Underlying the idea of a space elevator is the high cost of space rockets. It now costs about $25,00 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) to put something into geosynchronous orbit, where communications and television satellites reside.

Today's materials aren't strong enough to support a huge, full space elevator to those heights, the McGill University study argues. Instead, a much smaller elevator looks less far-fetched.

"We could view it as the first building blocks of a [full] space elevator," says study co-author Pamela Woo of McGill University in Montreal, Canada ( via news.nationalgeographic.com ).