…When Ash woke, the Vator’s cable shone across the inky sea, a nanothread umbilicus glittering with electromagnetic energy. The quad landed among a dozen others on the massive anchor platform.
“Ugh, I hate being the last one back,” said Thorn, glancing around at the other vehicles. “There’s going to be a line for the de-con pods.”
As he predicted, at least ten kids were still queued outside the climbing cabin…
– Syzygy Pt. I, Transient Phenomena
The main fictional technology in Syzygy is the “vators”, a pair of space lifts on Earth and its moon that allow humans to travel between the two. This futuristic idea actually originated in the 19th century when Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, inspired by the Eiffel Tower, described a “celestial castle” in space with a tower connecting it to Earth. Eighty years later, engineer Jerome Pearson published a technical paper on the concept. His vision influenced Arthur C Clarke’s 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise, which introduced the space elevator into popular culture. Since then, it has appeared in the works of several other notable sci-fi authors, including Robert Heinlein and Kim Stanley Robinson.
How would it work?
Imagine the universe as an elementary school playground, with a tetherball pole representing Earth. A ball spins around the pole fast enough to keep its rope taut. The space elevator operates on the same basic principle, but instead of a ball we’d have a counterweight—perhaps a space station or even a captured asteroid—anchored to a mobile offshore platform. A ribbon stretched between these two points would allow mechanical lifters to move up and down its length, ferrying cargo and even human passengers. Depending on the speed, trips could last anywhere from a few days to almost a month.
In Syzygy, I constructed my imaginary Vator between a small station at geosynchronous orbit and a rig in the Pacific Ocean. I calculated the travel time using speeds already achieved by modern bullet trains (300mph). This made a one-way trip between Earth and Luna last a little over a week: quick enough to keep the story moving without sacrificing plausibility.
What would we use to construct it?
Finding a suitable tether material has proved the biggest obstacle to realizing a space elevator. The cable will need to cover 100,000 km, and no substances we currently use possess enough strength for such distances. Metals like steel have a breaking point of only 20-30km, while fiber materials such as Kevlar hold up to 100-400km. Engineered nanomaterials may provide solutions in the near future. Top contenders include:
- Carbon nanotubes. This was the favored material until 2016, when researchers at the Hong Kong Polytechnic Institute determined that minor flaws in a nanotube’s atomic structure significantly reduced its strength. We’ll need a better manufacturing process before carbon nanotubes will be suitable for building space elevator cables.
- Graphene ribbons. Incredibly strong (anticipated breaking lengths of 5000–6000 km at sea level) these two-dimensional carbon sheets can also conduct electricity.
- Diamond nanothreads. Researchers at Penn State University created diamond nanothreads in 2014, and ongoing research suggests they could be even stronger and more flexible than initially believed, giving them promise as tether material.
Because the technology is still in flux, I describe my Vator’s construction only in general terms, based on existing models and materials. Part one references nanothreads and implies the use of Earth’s natural electromagnetic field to help power the contraption. I also adopted the idea of a mobile anchor platform in the Pacific, which serves as jumping-off point for the characters’ Earth adventures and backdrop for several key scenes.
Sounds complicated. Why build one?
At present, the cost and weight of fuel needed to escape Earth’s gravity make space travel both complex and prohibitively expensive. Launching from a space elevator drastically reduces this factor. The universe would become vastly more accessible. We could explore farther than ever, exploit extraterrestrial resources, and even pursue colonization. Space elevators on multiple planets, like the Moon or Mars, would facilitate colonization.
The implications are so potentially lucrative that several enterprises are already attempting the ascent. In 2015, a Canadian company patented an inflatable model that would stand about 20km high. While this is only a fraction of the way to geosynchronous orbit, the company estimates rockets launched from its elevator’s height would save 30% on fuel costs compared to counterparts on the surface. A group of Japanese scientists designed technology called Space Tethered Autonomous Robotic Satellite-Cube or STAR-C in 2016. Experiments with STAR-C aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The could improve our approach to the space elevator concept and inspire solutions for cleaning up space junk.
Towers to the stars have captured our imaginations for more than a century. A little more technological refinement could take the space elevator concept from fiction to functional, revolutionizing human interaction with the universe.