Students at the University of British Columbia on Thursday unveiled their design for a prototype space elevator to vie for a $150,000 US prize in an American technology competition.

The Snowstar team of UBC undergraduate students will head to Las Cruces, N.M., later in October in a bid to win the Spaceward Foundation's Space Elevator Challenge.

The event is one of several competitions being held at the X-Prize Cup Oct. 20-21, a festival mounted by the X-Prize Foundation. In 2004, the foundation awarded a $10 million US prize to the first private team to launch a manned vehicle into space twice in as many weeks.

Similar to an elevator in a highrise building, a space elevator would convey people or cargo along a cable or ribbon anchored to the ground at one end and an orbiting space station at the other. The process would be much less dangerous and costly method of reaching space than launching a rocket.

"Everybody thinks the idea is pretty cool," Team Snowstar member Damir Hot told the CBC. "Most of the team thinks it's going to happen in 20 to 30 years."

But a lot of research and effort needs to take place before a full-scale space elevator becomes reality, Hot said.

Most likely to win

Snowstar's 50 or so members have put in 12,000 hours of work over the past year to build their "climber," a 12-kilogram contraption made of aluminum honeycomb, carbon fibre and chicken wire that supports more than 400 solar cells.

The space elevator prototype is the team's second crack at the prize. Last year, event organizers recognized Snowstar's vehicle as most likely to win this year's competition after it climbed about six metres. No one won last year's challenge.

To win a prize, the contest requires competing climbing devices to ascend a ribbon suspended nearly 61 metres (200 feet) from a crane at a rate of at leastone metre per second. The climber must be powered by a light provided by contest organizers.

Snowstar's climber can move at betweenone and twometres a second, Hot said — 20 to 40 times faster than the prototype they made last year.

The team is optimistic about the prospects for the device, which measures about 6.1 metres by 2.4 metres across, and stands 1.2 metres tall.

"We think we have a good shot at winning this year," Hot said.

Canadian rivals

The team of engineering and science students isn't the only Canadian entry this year. Competitors from the University of Saskatchewan and Toronto are also participating in the so-called Power Beaming competition.

A team from Edmonton is also competing against Snowstar's team in the parallel Tether Strength challenge, in which contestants must produce a material 50 per cent stronger than the previous year's top entry, weigh no more than two grams and be no more than 20 centimetres wide.

The eventual goal is to develop a material that would be light and strong enough to support the 100,000-kilometre-long tether that would lift a full-scale elevator into space.