A clutch of Canadian competitors is rising to the challenge in a NASA-funded contest that could eventually make a trip to space as easy as taking an elevator — literally.
Teams based in Saskatoon, Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto are among thousands of space enthusiasts expected to converge on a desert site in Las Cruces, N.M., on Friday and Saturday for the X-Prize Cup, 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.
The competitors are gearing up for the Spaceward Foundation's Space Elevator Challenge, which requires them to surmount technical obstacles in the development of a new type of vehicle that would take people and cargo from Earth into space.
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 safer and cost-effective method of reaching space than launching a rocket, experts say.
Sask.team uses laser to power climber
Clayton Ruszowski, the president of the University of Saskatchewan Space Team (USST), said he and his Saskatoon-based team of 20 to 30 undergraduate engineering students have been working for about 10 months on a solar-cell skinned elevator prototype.
"This is like a second job for me," Ruszowski told CBC.ca on the telephone from Las Cruces, adding that he has spentall of his spare time working on the device.
'You get a lot more power from a laser. It's a lot more efficient than a regular light and its energy doesn't get wasted heating up the solar cells.' —Clayton Ruszowski, president of the University of Saskatchewan Space Team
The machine is being entered in one of the two parts of the elevator competition, known as the Power Beam Challenge, in which competitors build a machine that can climb at a rate of at least one metre per second up a ribbon suspended nearly 61 metres (200 feet) from a crane. The climber must be powered by a light source.
"We developed a high-powered laser to power our climber," Ruszowski said.
Asked why his team chose to use a laser rather than a regular light bulb, he explained that a focused beam like a laser is a likely power source for a full-scale space elevator if one is ever built, so it makes the test more realistic.
But there are practical reasons for the choice, too.
"You get a lot more power from a laser," Ruszowski said. "It's a lot more efficient than a regular light and its energy doesn't get wasted heating up the solar cells."
Ruszowski said he is confident about his team's chances.
"Last year, we had the best result in the competition — we climbed to 20 feet," he said.
UBC team enters2 competitions
Other Canadians competing in the elevator contest include a groupfrom the University of British Columbia and private groups from Toronto and Edmonton.
UBC's Team Snowstar, led by captain Steve Jones, unveiled its elevator prototype in Vancouver on Oct. 12.
"Steve drove it down in his dad's truck," team member Damir Hot told CBC.ca from Denver, Colo., en route to the contest.
"The competition looks pretty good and we're pretty confident that we can do very well," Hot said, noting that 19 people out of their team of about 50 people will be attending the event over the weekend.
"I think it's pretty impressive that we're missing classes during mid-terms to do this," he said.
Eventual aim: 100,000-kilometre tether
Snowstar is also making an entry in the Tether Strength challenge, competing against a private team from Edmonton.
The eventual goal of that competition is to develop a material that would be light and strong enough to support the 100,000-kilometre tether that would lift a full-scale elevator into space.
Contestants must produce a material 50 per cent stronger than the previous year's top entry, weighing no more than two grams and be no more than 20 centimetres wide.
The space elevator competition's prize purse is funded through Centennial Challenges is the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's prize contest program.
Its objective is to generate innovation and competition in solar system exploration and other areas of relevant to NASA's missions. The space agency has funded prizes purses of $200,000 US this year, which will rise every year until 2010's purse of $600,000.
Space elevator 'will be developed,' aerospace CEO
"The space elevator is a very interesting idea," Eric Knight, the CEO of Connecticut-based UP Aerospace, Inc., told CBC.ca. "It's very possible it will be developed â¦ I can't imagine it happening for another decade or two â¦ but it's very promising."
Knight said that the eventual development of a space elevator depends on how quickly technological advancements occur, adding that he hasn't ruled out the possibility that his company could one day be involved in providing a space elevator service.
"The progress of technology, the pace is stunning," he said.
UP Aerospace will be showcasing their company and technology for the public during the X-Prize Cup.
The firm, which already has a sub-orbital rocket dubbed SpaceLoft XL, is developing an orbital vehicle over the next two years.
In September, UP Aerospace's launch suffered a malfunction and failed to reach orbit. The company is working on fixing the problem ahead of a postponed launch that had been slated for Saturday.
The delayed launch is to carry the ashes of actor James Doohan — best known for his role as chief engineer Montgomery (Scotty) Scott in Star Trek — and Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper into space.