Space Elevator Games 2006 Wrap-up by Dr. Brad Edwards

The Space Elevator games just finished up today and it was quite an event. In this post I would like to summarize the games, both the results and the behind the scenes, what it implies and what we can expect in the future.

Pulling together an event of this scale takes a lot of work, time and effort. The Spaceward organization and all the volunteers that pulled this off should be thanked and congratulated – none were paid. The Space Elevator Games area at the X-Prize Cup consisted of a climber row, two large tents lined with the competing teams and their climbers, and a large competition area.

As stated in an earlier post there were a number of activities and some excitement in the climber competition. Well, on Friday, the first day of the event, the operations were worked out and by the time we got to yesterday things were running pretty smoothly though there was still an amazing amount left to accomplish. On Saturday, the climber teams jumped onto the ribbon one after another – nine times total during the day. We had a climber from the USST team race up the ribbon in 58 seconds, a spectacular job though just short of the 1 meter per second required speed (I will discuss this further in future posts since this was a complex decision). The USST team also had a slight issue with their braking system and they had to be lowered back down. This climber did more than any previous climber and was one step beyond the excellent performance of the Michigan team the day before who made it up in under six minutes. Both of these teams put together very mature and similar designs - the engineering on both were clearly the result of a design focused on minimizing weight and maximizing the power through the system. The USST team not only took their system from last year and greatly improved it but they also brought in a kilowatt laser that they had working briefly and almost ran on. This is the ultimate system in my mind and would have been impressive to see. This combination and USST’s demonstrated ability to learn and improve their system will make them a very serious competitor next year.

Saturday continued with the German team, the Litewon, and the Kansas City Space Pirates all ascending the ribbon in times from two to seven minutes. The German team was organized and obviously prepared with a climber that will perpetuate the stereotype of German engineering being some of the most refined. As a team they would hold cheers and run through checklists working in unison.

Both Litewon and the Kansas City Space Pirates used solar power but in different ways. Litewon took the most direct approach and used very lightweight solar panels to run off the New Mexico sun and move the climber up the ribbon. It worked well though was slow potentially from a lack of power.

The Pirates brought in a massive set of mirrors, over a dozen roughly 4 foot by 8 foot panels, that were about 100 feet away on the ground and all focused on a collector on the climber. As perhaps the most unique design it made it up the ribbon and when they first arrived struck a little fear into a couple of the other teams. The possibility of that much solar power on a climber equaled many of the spot light systems that were used.

Besides the teams that were able to ascend the ribbon there were a number of other teams that put in a lot of effort and succeeded in bringing in good systems but just couldn’t get through all the details to run them.

Due to a change of policy by the X-Prize Cup the microwave run teams were not allowed to attempt their climbs on sight so the climbers were given another day (today Sunday) to make attempts. The USST tried once more and quickly raced up the ribbon though they were unable to maintain the light alignment and lost their speed part way up the climb.

The other aspect of the games was the tremendous public exposure. The crowds around the games and strolling through climber row often numbered in the thousands. It was not unusual to see a climber team surrounded by a large group of children asking questions.

After the day ended at the climber competition on Saturday attention turned to the tether competition. In spite of the more glamorous appearance of the climber competition the tether competition last year and this has provided an entertaining event. This year it was unfortunate that three of the four entrants were disqualified due to cutting the length requirement too closely and coming in under the required two meters. The remaining team, Astroaraneae, was run against the house tether for the prize money. Last year the house tether broke at 1240 pounds so too win the prize Astroaraneae had to beat this and the current house tether. As the two were pulled head to head the weight rose until it surpassed last years record with neither tether breaking.

Finally the Astroaraneae tether broke at 1331 pounds which would have won the prize money last year. This year the house tether held 1661 pounds before the pull was stopped due to breakage on the tether-pulling machine – the half-inch steel axles were severely bending and their mountings were near failure. The house and Astroaraneae tethers both essentially achieved over 80% of the expected theoretical strength of the raw material. This event has established that the prize will only be won by a new material and not by a commercially available material – a key objective of the challenge itself which is to develop new materials.

Overall, I was extremely pleased with the event though it is not fully mature. The issues that arose during the event stemmed from the difficulty of the challenge itself. Setting up the challenge is serious – a several hundred-foot ribbon under tension and all the logistics of running climbers are not trivial. The difficulty of the challenge has also forced Spaceward to be flexible on many of the rules in terms of qualifying climbers. The plan for next year, which will have a taller ribbon, is to obtain sponsorship and real resources then recruit teams and set very strict rules on the procedures of qualifying and operations. It is also likely that the event next year will run multiple ribbons.

The challenges and events are doing what they were intended – pushing the engineering and available materials for the space elevator needs. The challenges have not achieved their goals yet, however, if this event is any indication during the next three to five years I have little doubt these events will produce a very high caliber climber and extreme strength materials.

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