08 June 2009

200 km Inflatable Tower to the Edge of Space

Update 9 June 09: From Brian Wang -- The Space Elevator Climbing and Beaming Competition will be held next month, 14 - 16 July 2009, at Edwards AFB in the California Mojave desert. I wonder if it is too late for the York University team below to enter?
The team [York University] envisages assembling the structure from a series of modules constructed from Kevlar-polyethylene composite tubes made rigid by inflating them with a lightweight gas such as helium. To test the idea, they built a 7-metre scale model made up of six modules (see image). Each module was built out of three laminated polyethylene tubes 8 centimetres in diameter, mounted around circular spacers and inflated with air. _NewScientist
An inflatable tower 200 km in height could provide rapid transit service to the edge of space. Electromagnetic accelerator propulsion integrated into the tower would propel the "space train" on its routine daily journey to the edge of the atmosphere. From that vantage point, human expansion into the greater universe could be catapulted via several different means.
To stay upright and withstand winds, full-scale structures would require gyroscopes and active stabilisation systems in each module. The team modelled a 15-kilometre tower made up of 100 modules, each one 150 metres tall and 230 metres in diameter, built from inflatable tubes 2 metres across. Quine estimates it would weigh about 800,000 tonnes when pressurised - around twice the weight of the world's largest supertanker.

"Twenty kilometres up is about as dark as outer space. You can see about 600 kilometres in any direction," Quine says. Tourists could get a view almost like that from space, but without the difficulties of coping with zero gravity. He calculates the tower could be extended up to low Earth orbit at 200 kilometres.

The tower does a similar job to the much-vaunted space elevator. But while the elevator envisages using ribbons woven from superstrong nanotubes - a material that is as yet non-existent - the tower would use materials that are already available. And should something go wrong with the tower, failure of a few modules would not cause the whole structure to collapse. _NewScientist
All that is needed to jump-start the movement of humans into permanent space industries and settlements is a low cost portal to the edge of space. From there the normal human instincts of exploration, expansion, and development would take over. The fact that a single asteroid can be worth trillions of dollars for its mineral value alone, would be enough to fuel a new gold rush.

The new age of space exploration will introduce an element of hope into the human psyche that has been sadly lacking recently. Humans need the idea of an open future, to avoid the malaise and societal implosion that is beginning to set in around the developed world.

A huge tower of this type would provide many possibilities for energy supplies, tourist and industrial operations, residential spaces, and commercial enterprises of all kinds. The space operations would create an order of magnitude commercial expansion beyond that. Just for starters.

The space elevator concept has stalled, somewhat, due to the lack of any current materials capable of sustaining the stresses involved. This new approach is exactly what is needed to get the conceptual gears of space access moving again.

Brian Wang has more at Nextbigfuture

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Blogger Towards infinity said...

15 + 5 = 20 not 200 :-)

Monday, 08 June, 2009  
Blogger Loren said...

Someon over on talk-polywell mentioned the "launch loop." have you heard of it?

Monday, 08 June, 2009  
Blogger Snake Oil Baron said...

An interesting take on the challenge. And an interesting choice of posts given the post below. Maybe Obama can ascend to heaven from Cairo via such a tower. Though if he is involved, Babylon might be a better local for the tower. I suppose that such a tower would need to be at the equator so Obama might need to change the Earth's rotation a bit. Can we do it? "Yes we can"

Why is it that little has been made of Obama using Bob the Builder's slogan as his own?

Anyway, this is an interesting idea. I wonder if there are any middle range applications for towers that dwarf skyscrapers in height but don't reach nearly as high as the edge of the atmosphere. Such apps could help advance the concept. Communications towers obviously spring to mind. Bungee jumping for the really rich? Paper airplane contests? Maybe cargo carrying gliders could be raised up in sections, assembled, loaded with cargo and pitched off the side saving some transportation energy. Or maybe legislators could be raised up in groups, assembled at the top, loaded into canvas bags and pitched off the side. Maybe give them a choice between term limitation and terminal velocity.

Monday, 08 June, 2009  
Blogger neil craig said...

Brilliant idea. A piece of lateral thinking that solves some of the problems of space elevators elegantly.

Being at 200km doesn't give you orbital speed but since any elevator will be built in orbit anyway the taper will be significantly reduced not just by slightly less distance & lower gravity but by avoiding weather. Might also be possible to link it to a skyhook if if the hook is moveable enough to be put in the right place. Normally skyhooks have to travel through atmosphere which limits their lifetime.

Tuesday, 09 June, 2009  
Blogger OneSTDV said...

I thought future expansion into space colonies (on Moon and Mars first) would be rather easy. That was until I watched an episode of "The Universe" entitled "Space Disasters" or something like that.

Here's one example: Let's say we try to first colonize the Moon because Mars is months and sometimes over a year away. Well the Moon has absolutely no atmosphere and no electromagnetic field. So when a solar flare expends all these particles out into space, the Earth is rather well protected while the Moon isn't protected at all. If anyone is outside in a spacesuit, they'll die almost instantly.

Or how about being on Mars. It has little atmosphere and large meteorites aren't always burned up like in Earth's atmosphere. Someone is outside in a space suit and is hit by a micrometeorite (which hit Mars somewhat often). It can rip a whole in your spacesuit, depressurize it and you die in about fifteen seconds.

I think it was a bad idea to watch that program because it made me somewhat pessimitic about space expansion. I guess we'll have to teraform the planets before we can live there safely. I saw one idea that would only take about 100 years to give Mars an atmosphere.

Tuesday, 09 June, 2009  
Blogger al fin said...

It's good to be a little pessimistic STDV, about space launch and exploration. Not so pessimistic that you stop trying, but pessimistic enough that you thoroughly apply your crap detector to all new launch ideas.

The team that did this research looked mainly at towers around 15 km, TI, but modeled the concept all the way to 200 km.

As you say, Baron, there are many uses for smaller towers. Many of them relate to energy generation, but tourism, border defense, and phased space launch from lower altitudes also come to mind.

Neil, I suspect that several adjunct technologies could be used to achieve orbit from 200 km.

Loren, Brian Wang at NextBigFuture.com did an article about a "launch hoop" recently.

Tuesday, 09 June, 2009  
Blogger Loren said...

Everything carries risk, STDV. Humans who go to space will have to consider them. On the other hand, many of those risks can be mitigated. We have composites that can be used to armor a space suit against micrometeorites, and we know enough about radiation that shielding is easy. Several feet of packed lunar earth takes care of part of it, a dozen feet or so of foam takes care of the rest. It's probably easier to dig a hole and spray it down with sealant than to build a building, at least for large habitats anyway.

Tuesday, 09 June, 2009  

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