This story features in Unearthed: The cities of the future

The premium for space on our planet is making us look below the surface… and above it too. But how far above the surface of the earth should we consider, and how can we make that incredible leap possible? We speak to Tim Schurr, Seequent’s Solutions Architect, about his thoughts on the Space Elevator.

Why it fascinates me
In recent years I think we’ve rediscovered our fascination for space exploration and the amazing engineering that makes it possible. The world’s most powerful rocket is now SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which features incredible new propulsion technology and re-usable boosters. Even so, it’s far from being a sustainable vehicle, burning some 440 tonnes of fuel and costing US$90M with each launch. Entering and leaving Earth’s atmosphere is incredibly difficult, to say the least, but it’s possible that access to space might one day be disrupted by a new approach – a technology that could render the traditional rocket business obsolete. And that’s the Space Elevator.

How it works
It’s essentially an upside-down plumb bob of collosal size. A cable literally runs from Earth into space, held in place by a counterweight that sits beyond geostationary orbit, and elevator ‘cars’ glide up and down it. In 1895 Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first wondered whether a free-standing tower could be built tall enough to reach geostationery orbit (far from feasible as no material could withstand the compression from its own weight). In 1959 the concept moved closer to reality when a tensile design was proposed instead, and today a number of R&D
teams around the world continue to explore the concept.

35,000km of cable
100 fold reduction in cost

What it offers
Imagine taking a smooth ride up the escalator through the atmosphere and out into space. What could this do for our access to space, space stations and getting to other planets? Co-author of Leaving the Planet by Space Elevator, Philip Ragan, estimates the cost of moving 1kg of payload into orbit would drop from US$25,000 to just $220. And it’s not so far from science fiction as you might think. The International Academy of Astronautics estimates that carbon nanotube technology is less than 20
innovative years away from achieving the necessary strength-toweight ratio.

5 days to space
estimated transit time for early systems

Geology’s role in lifting us into space
In its natural state, the base station would need to support a rather unnatural, completely vertical force constantly acting on in – like a
guy-wire and peg on a camping tent. The local ground conditions and geologies would be critical components of the design of the base station on Earth, providing the vital ‘earth-anchor’ for the mass in orbit. Exhaustive investigations to find stable rock in a nonseismically active zone would be essential. Leapfrog Works would be ideal for the investigation team, allowing geoscientists to rapidly form a hypothesis and support their decisions with geology and geotech models. What an incredible project to contribute to.

Tim Schurr,
Solutions Architect