Robot passes test in space elevator contest

By Associated Press
Thursday, November 5, 2009

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, CALIF. -- A robot powered by a ground-based laser beam climbed a long cable dangling from a helicopter Wednesday, qualifying for prize money in a $2 million competition to test the potential reality of the science fiction concept of space elevators.

The highly technical contest brought teams from Missouri, Alaska and Seattle to Rogers Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert, most familiar to the public as a space shuttle landing site.

The contest requires that the machines climb 2,953 feet up a cable slung beneath a helicopter hovering nearly a mile high.

LaserMotive's vehicle zipped to the top in about four minutes and immediately repeated the feat, qualifying for at least a $900,000 second-place prize.

The device, a square of photo voltaic panels about 2 feet by 2 feet and topped by a motor structure and thin triangle frame, had failed to respond to the laser three times before it was lowered, inspected and then hoisted back up by the helicopter for the successful tries.

LaserMotive's two principals, Jordin Kare and Thomas Nugent, said they were relieved after two years of work. They said their real goal is to develop a business based on the idea of beaming power, not on the idea of accessing space via an elevator climbing a cable.

"We both are pretty skeptical of its near-term prospects," Kare said of an elevator.

The contest, however, demonstrates that beaming power works, Nugent said.

Funded by a NASA program to explore innovative technology, the contest is intended to encourage development of a theory that originated in the 1960s and was popularized by Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 novel "The Fountains of Paradise." Space elevators are envisioned as a way to reach space without the risk and expense of rockets.

Instead, electrically powered vehicles would run up and down a cable anchored to a ground structure and extending thousands of miles to a mass in geosynchronous orbit -- the kind of orbit in which communications satellites are placed to stay over a fixed spot on Earth.

Electricity would be supplied through a concept known as "power beaming," in which ground-based lasers beam energy to photovoltaic cells on the bottom of a climbing vehicle -- something like an upside-down solar power system.

The space elevator competition has not produced a winner in the previous three years, but it has become increasingly difficult.

The vehicles must climb at an average speed of about 11 miles an hour to qualify for the top prize. There is a lesser prize for vehicles that climb more slowly.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company