It’s not getting as much press as the “X Prize” for private rocket launches, but NASA has quietly been running a contest for work toward a “space elevator,” offering up to $2 million for a scheme to transmit power to a small robot climbing a 1km cable. Yesterday, the team from LaserMotive, including certified rocket scientist and friend of the blog Jordin Kare, successfully powered a robot up a 900m cable using diode laser arrays to send power to solar panels on the robot. They managed an average speed of 3.73 m/s, which doesn’t get them the full $2 million prize, but qualified them for the $900,000 prize for an average speed above 2 m/s.
There are still two other teams in the competition, which will continue today. The Kansas City Space Pirates team got within 50 m of the top, but not fast enough to be in the money, and a team from the University of Saskatchewan has yet to compete at all. LaserMotive can apparently take another crack as well, and over on Twitter, Mary Kay Kare says that Jordin has some ideas of how to speed their climber up, and go for the grand prize.
This is a long, long way from an actual space elevator, of course– working out the power beaming is arguably less of a challenge than finding a material to build the thing out of, which nobody has come close to doing. Still, it’s cool to see, and a reminder that while rockets are flashier, there’s work going on on other ways to get stuff into space in an economical manner.