You've probably heard of the concept of a space elevator, climbing a 22,000 mile long cable that's attached to a satellite in geostationary orbit over the Earth's equator. Sounds crazy, but the concept is edging ever closer toward reality.
NASA is offering a first prize of $1.1 million to anyone who can create a space elevator that climbs a kilometer at an average rate of 5 meters per second. No one's done that yet, but the second-place prize of $900,000 was just won by a company called LaserMotive, whose climber shimmied up a kilometer-long cable at 2 meters per second. It's powered by a stationary laser on the ground, pointing up to a target on the craft, providing enough power for it to lift.
There's still a long way to go, though. LaserMotive and two other teams — the Kansas City Space Pirates and the University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team — are all making progress toward winning first prize. Eventually, though, somebody has to figure out how to make a cable light enough and strong enough to span that 22,000 mile distance. Insert miracle here.
UPDATE from New Scientist:
The climber reached the top in just over 4 minutes, for an average speed of 3.7 metres per second. The team's climber repeated the feat at a slightly higher speed of 3.9 metres per second on Thursday.
On Friday, two other teams failed in their final attempted climbs. That means LaserMotive will receive the entire $900,000 NASA set aside for climbers that could make the climb faster than 2 metres per second.
The remaining $1.1 million in NASA prize money was reserved for climbs faster than 5 metres per second, which none of the competitors was able to achieve.