Climbing Closer to Space Vacations

Photo credit to Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit to Wikimedia Commons

By Grace Raver
BU News Service

You’ve probably heard of commercial space travel spurred on in part by the Ansari X Prize, a 10 million dollar prize to encourage development in space travel for the “average person,” aka millionaires. There have been some great successes in the field, and the company Virgin Galactic intends to begin its first commercial flights to space as early as 2015.

However, flying into space isn’t the only form of space tourism. The latest talk about town involves building a space elevator. As strange as it sounds, the idea of having an elevator take you out to space and back isn’t exactly new. A group called the International Space Elevator Consortium that promotes development of space elevator technology has been around since 2008. This story is finally gaining ground now because a Japanese construction firm named Obayashi Corp. recently announced its plans to build the elevator.

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The elevator would dramatically cut down on the cost of space travel, but it would take longer to get out there than traditional means. Regardless, this is a serious project in the growing field of space tourism.

The entire project hinges on the elevator cable, which needs to be insanely strong. The company had planned to make this cable out of carbon nanotubes: at almost a hundred times stronger than steel, they were the strongest fibers on earth. But the game has changed now that Researches at Penn State University have developed diamond nanothreads, which are even stronger, stiffer, and lighter than carbon nanotubes.

Diamonds are one of the hardest materials on Earth because of their structure. Each carbon atom in a diamond is bonded to four other carbon atoms to form a tetrahedron, or pyramid structure. Penn State researchers have discovered that applying a specialized compression process to benzene forces the molecules to line up in a dense crystalline chain of carbon tetrahedrons. Although amazingly strong, the thread is very small, 20,000 times smaller than the average human hair.

This discovery in itself is extraordinary because this structure has never been seen before. But of course its practical implications have immediately been linked to the space elevator. Hypothetically, diamond nanothreads could be capable of withstanding the intense amount of stress inherent in a structure stretching 60,000 miles high.

Now the research will be shifting to make the thread larger and more practical, which poses the question: what else could we do with these guys? Super long lasting floss? A new kind of bullet-proof vest? These threads might even be a must have in future jewelry or fashion. Being a romantic at heart, my favorite thought is that we might finally have a way to lasso the moon. Not that I think we should, but it’s fun to think that now someone could.

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If you’d like to learn more about the logistics of a space elevator just click here.

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Posted by: Grace Raver on