After a week of qualifying activities and lots of work, the space elevator games opened at the X-Prize Cup today. Six teams qualified for the climber competition though it is possible that another may qualify tonight. The one attempting to qualify tonight is unique in that it uses a microwave power system. The tether competition will be held tomorrow and will have four competitors - three of the four that previously registered and one additional one.
The climber competition today was interesting from several aspects. Several teams made attempts at climbing the 200 foot ribbon though only one had substantial success. The Michigan team managed to run on spotlight power and ascend the ribbon in 6 minutes - 5 minutes longer than required to win the $200k purse. However, the story is a little more complex than that. The attempts today were all made in a situation where strong winds existed all day at the 130 foot plus altitude. What this meant is that there was a serious oscillation in the ribbon - often moving 5 feet or more with a period of less than a second. This oscillation was seriously shaking the climbers at the base and was sufficient to dissuade two teams from attempting a climb today.
The interesting aspect of the Michigan climb was that as the climber ascended the ribbon it damped out most of the oscillation and made it to the top. The speed was impacted by the challenge of actively aiming eight-7kW spot lights on the bottom of the climber to supply power. When the lights did sufficiently illuminate the solar arrays on the climber it ascended at a rate that would have been sufficient to win the purse had they done it consistantly. With some modifications the Michigan team is hopeful that it can have a successful run tomorrow morning.
The other teams that attempted climbs today included the German team and the USST team though the UBC, Pirates and others opted to not climb for various reasons. As one example of the advance in performance, the German team attached two 10 inch by one inch thick steel plates to their climber as payload. Clearly they had confidence that their system would run successfully with the large additional mass. Based on their qualifying runs they had good reason to think this though today complications stopped their climber from ascending even in a good attempt.
One disappointment was the loss of the Spanish entry by UPS someplace in Kentucky. The Spanish team had done a lot of work to enter a quality climber but will be unable to compete due to the loss. The Spanish team was still in attendance and highly supportive of the other teams.
There were also issues arising with access to lights. Some teams were thought to be sharing light sources yet were denied the sources at the last minute. One affected team is USST though they hope to finish qualifying their high power laser system tonight which could put them right back in the competition.
There have been a few smaller operational issues that limited some of the activities today and are still being worked but in general the climber competition went well in the end. The weather was great (other than the wind), crowds were heavy and the tents with the space elevator climbers and material were very well attended. One of the issues, as it could be viewed, was the overabundance of media around the climber competition and throughout the area. As promised NOVA among others were in attendance. At times there were roughly two dozen video cameras and microphones swarming the climbers and teams.
Tonight behind the scenes activities will continue probably late into the night again and the weather is expected to be excellent for climbs early in the morning. Activities start again at 7AM and this should be prime climbing time.
The climbers are much more advanced than last year with lightweight systems and careful design throughout. However, the systems are still evolving and and being changed on site to improve them in many cases. Again, next year should continue to show advances.