Researchers to test space elevator concept in orbit, but don’t expect to try it

7 Sep 2018

How a space elevator might look in the far future. Image: 3000ad/Shutterstock

The idea of a space elevator has been put forward for more than a century and now Japan is finally going to build one, but at a very small scale.

Despite SpaceX’s attempts to drastically reduce the cost of space travel using reusable rockets, any attempts to launch a craft through the Earth’s atmosphere will still be at huge expense for the foreseeable future.

However, one theory that has always interested science-fiction writers and physicists alike is the idea of a space elevator whereby passengers or cargo could be just lifted into space on a giant elevator. Given the immense engineering challenge this would be, no real attempts have been made to achieve it.

At least that was the case until now as, according to AFP (via, a group of researchers from Shizuoka University in Japan will attempt to create one, albeit on a much smaller scale.

The university claims this will be the world’s first experiment to test elevator movement in the vacuum of space.

The first recorded mention of the space elevator idea was all the way back in 1895 when Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was inspired by seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time. But perhaps its biggest proponent was science-fiction icon Arthur C Clarke, who wrote an entire book about the idea called The Fountains of Paradise set in the 22nd century.

Back in the 21st century, however, the Japanese experiment will be a lot smaller.

How it will work

Travelling aboard a Japanese space agency rocket being launched next week, the equipment includes a box just 6cm long, 3cm wide and 3cm high.

The proof of concept of a working space elevator will see the box moved along a 10-metre cable stretching between two miniature satellites in orbit. It is hoped that the cable will be taut enough to transport the box between the two ends, proving that, at least on a small scale, the space elevator concept has merit.

While this is happening in orbit, the researchers on the ground will monitor the box’s progress through cameras placed on the satellites.

The idea is starting to draw private interest, with Japanese construction firm Obayashi partnering with the university on this project, with the hope of bringing humans into orbit in 2050. By this time, it aims to have carbon nanotubes strong enough to build an elevator shaft that could stretch up to 96,000km above Earth.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic