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Japan is trying to build an elevator to space

Going up

A rendering of a space elevator.

The final frontier of space may seem a lot closer in the future. We’ve seen various schemes hoping to launch hotels into space over the next few years, and now researchers in Japan are working to build a space elevator that could transport people and goods back and forth by 2050.

As far-fetched as it seems, a space elevator connecting Earth and low orbit could be very helpful for astronauts and scientists. As the Smithsonian points out, rockets are expensive and often single use. To combat these problems, researchers at Japan’s Shizuoka University plan to test an elevator in space on a smaller scale first.

Initial tests will launch a rocket and a mini elevator from the Japanese island of Tanegashima. Once in space, the tiny elevator—it measures about 4 inches long—will travel along a 32-foot cable suspended in space between two mini satellites. Cameras in the satellites will monitor the movement of the motorized elevator box. “It’s going to be the world’s first experiment to test elevator movement in space,” a university spokesman said on Tuesday. The launch was supposed to occur on September 11, but a typhoon has delayed it to an unknown date.

Of course, to really build an elevator to space will require much more than a tiny box and two satellites. The idea first emerged in 1895 when Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was inspired by the Eiffel Tower. Since then, theories have envisioned a cable tethered to the Earth—probably somewhere near the equator—that would allow for electromagnetic vehicles to ride up and down at a much cheaper cost than rockets.

The biggest challenge? Currently no material is strong enough to combat the gravity and winds of the upper atmosphere. Carbon nanotube is a possibility since it’s 20 times stronger than steel, but even that might shred under stress. Still, despite the problems, the researchers at Shizuoka University believe that the upcoming planned tests will provide helpful data for this pie-in-the-sky idea to become a reality.