Five days until the Space Elevator Games

The games are almost upon us (www.spaceward.org). Marc Boucher is already on the road to Salt Lake City and I (Brad Edwards) will be heading down in a couple days to help with the set-up and endless final details prior to the opening next Friday (October 19th). The endeavor has been developing and growing and this year will be interesting. It is not a backyard tinkering event for geeks, it is getting serious and turning into a fun event for all.

Opening at the Davis county fairgrounds the event has been expanded. There will be the climbers racing up a ribbon hung from a 400 foot tall crane and the tethers being broken at an inside event alongside light racers (beamed power-driven remote controlled race cars). In between climber runs, racing cars and tether pulls a jumbotron will be showing various space elevator-related videos including the Discovery and NOVA specials and the newest from Japan and several other activities and experts will be available to give the uninitiated an understanding of the space elevator. All of this is now packaged in a colorful fair-type environment complete with food vendors. The center of the activity will be the climbers that race and those that fail. With plenty of room and cameras on the climbers and following their ascent it will be easily accessible to all. As in past years spectators will be able to get close to the competitors at climber row and see what’s been built and talk to the teams. The serious part is that the climbers now have backers, years of development and power. The first two years the power sources were strictly spot lights and reflected solar and though there will be some of these this year, the ones to watch may be those with the multikilowatt lasers (a million times more powerful than a laser pointer) and the microwave systems. These could race at speeds easily enough to win the prize but they are complex systems and certainly a smoking “agony of defeat” is a real possibility in some cases.

Of the roughly 30 climber teams that originally registered and the 22 expected to show there are perhaps ten that have a real shot of completing the ascent in the time required to take home hard cash. These teams come in all flavors but many are veterans from prior years. Having said this of course I am bound to be proved wrong by one of the wildcard teams - new teams that have watched the others and come from zero to serious competitor behind closed doors. Each of the teams have their own motivation – cash or the competitive spirit or simply to build real world engineering experience.

On the tethers, the number of entrants is more limited – they are still in fear of my house tether from last year (just joking everyone). This challenge is less complex than the power beaming (climbers) but requires more direct advanced technology. If one of the teams comes in with a winning tether they clearly will be making history because the event is precisely designed to only allow for a new high-strength material to win. And though this event appears less flamboyant than its sibling climber competition, each year it has turned into an exciting event in its own right. The exploding tethers, the breaking of the pulling machine due to an unexpected tether strength, the issues and failure have all made this event one that we look forward to with a sense of unknowing. It has also been a more up-close and personal event so those attending may want to go early to get up-front.

The newest event, light racers, is for everyone. Competitors can be built and run by engineers of all ages and though the prize is smaller it is still substantial - $2,500 for the fastest beamed power remote control racer and a total of $10,000 in prizes. This is the exact technology NASA is looking for to use at the lunar poles where power delivery to roves is challenging. It is new this year and we don’t know quite what to expect but it is sure to be an event that rapidly grows in participation over the coming years.

Operationally, one of the best changes from last year is that the event is a short 45 minute drive from a major city (Salt Lake City) and airline hub – cheap flights, and plenty of hotels to choose from.

Bottom line: for the price of a movie ticket the future of space is accessible to all at the space elevator games.

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