An elevator to the future

Ryan Modafe

February 9, 2024

The space frontier has always been a fascinating topic in the scientific community due to its mysteriousness and seemingly unending size. As humans, we strive to discover more about the mystical realm that surrounds us but is technologically restricted. Many factors play into space exploration, with a big one being climate change. Rockets require a tremendous amount of fuel to accelerate fast enough to escape the Earth’s atmosphere. As a result, the burning of these fuels in large quantities does negatively affect the environment. However, scientists have discovered that these negative contributions have enough of an impact to not rule them out as negligible sources of climate change. Even more, is that rockets cost astronomical amounts to build and get ready for flight. There could be a solution emerging now however with roots dating back to 1895. Konstantin Tsiolkovski, known as the pioneer of astronautics, was inspired by the technology behind the Eiffel Tower to construct a space elevator that connected the surface of the Earth to outer space. Of course, this was very far from possible at the time due to engineering constraints. Now in the 20th century though, this story could become a reality.

The primary component of an elevator that provides its function is the cable. However, there are many issues associated with a cable for such a function. Firstly, it would have to span a whopping 20,000 miles or more to maintain a geostationary orbit around the Earth. This means the cable would be very unstable, very costly, and would have to endure such great forces that it wouldn’t be practical with currently available materials. 

Thankfully, researchers Zephyr Penoyre and Emily Sandford seek a different approach to make the space elevator a reality. Rather than begin such an elevator from Earth’s surface to outer space, they’d like to make a connection from the moon’s surface to geostationary orbit about 22,000 miles out from the Earth. This immediately reduces the forces experienced by the cable. The segment near the moon would experience a lower force due to the moon’s significantly lower gravitational force than the Earth. Segments in the middle, which would pass through a Lagrange point, would be suspended in space. These Lagrange points are areas in which the gravitational fields of two bodies cancel with each other to create a net zero force in the area. Finally, segments approaching Earth would have a significantly lower gravitational pull on them than if originating on Earth because of the vast distance from Earth. The researchers estimate that “It would reduce the fuel needed to reach the surface of the moon to a third of the current value.” This would significantly lower both environmental impacts and costs for future missions. While not yet implemented, the concept is closer to development than ever before and could shape up to be the future of space transportation.