Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Access to High Earth Orbit about to get much much cheaper.

Cambridge University has made a breakthrough that allows carbon nanotubes to be combined into a weblike structure and wound into a continuous ultra-strong fiber filament. This innovation has been predicted for decades in Science Fiction Literature. Larry Niven used it in much of his "Known Space" series of novels, calling it "Sinclair Filament". Sir Arthur C. Clarke also used a variation of it in his novel "Fountains of Paradise".

No data has been released publically as to the UTS or modulus of elasticity of this fiber as of yet, but it is thought to be strong enough and light enough to allow the fabrication of a space elevator similar to that envisioned by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. NASA, which funded the research, is eager to begin playing with the material.

If this material does in fact have the strength required for this project, then it is reasonable to conclude that the current plans for the Constellation program should be reviewed in light of this in order to ascertain what modifications, if any, are required to allow the vehicles to be used in the construction of the project.

H/T JKugler

7 Comments:

Blogger Jean said...

"The idea is still in the realms of science fiction..."

Over 60,000 miles of "cable?" Does sounds pretty incredible, and with the current economic climate, I wonder if NASA will survive at all !

January 21, 2009 4:39 AM  
Blogger Rorschach said...

Jean, I'm not a native "metric" speaker so I had to convert some units and I did a little investigation and the numbers I'm coming up with would normally make me think I made an error in my math, but I've checked it several times. NASA supplied 4 million dollars, and for that, they have received a material that is 50 times stronger AT A MINIMUM of the strongest wire rope in existence, and 5-1/2 times lighter. The pilot plant can produce 18 miles of this fiber per day, and that amount only weighs a gram. Which means a thread long enough to reach geosynchronus orbit (22,000 miles up) would only weigh 1222 grams per fiber. There are other obstacles to this but the fiber was the biggie, everything else is within the realm of currently known technologies. The space elevator is now physically possible where it was not possible before. That is the takeaway you should be getting.

Space elevators have a number of huge advantages over rockets. For one, if there is a mechanical problem, you are merely stuck at altitude until another car can be dispatched to retrieve you. If there is a problem with a rocket, you probably will be blown up or die a fiery death reentering the atmosphere like a meteor. you also aren't throwing away 90% of your vehicle every time you go up in an elevator and generating massive amounts of toxic rocket exhaust. you are burning some electricity to go up, which you can recover on the way back down through regenerative braking. The fiber can actually be a power generator itself. Being conductive, it is swinging through the earth's magnetic field and will generate significant amounts of electrical energy doing so.

This fiber has a number of other advantages as well, it is a very good thermal conductor along it's axis but a good insulator across it's axis. It is also a very good electrical conductor. which means it might be a good replacement for long distance power lines. It may also have use as armor, not unlike kevlar, but much much stronger. Or it could be sandwiched between plates of aluminum, and/or depleted uranium to make super-armor for tanks and Humvees and aircraft. It could be used in fiber composite tanks that would weigh next to nothing but hold very high pressures. It could even be used to make the pressure hulls of submarines that would not be detectable with magnetometers or ultra-light solid rockets or aircraft structures.

The applications of this material are quite literally endless.

January 21, 2009 7:04 AM  
Blogger ttyler5 Editor said...

But just think of the **earth-bound apps** for such a material!

We will surely be using it in huge quantities on our planet's surface before we tie a cable to the space station with it ! :^D :^D :^D

January 21, 2009 7:32 AM  
Blogger Jean said...

I guess what I was trying to envision is "cable" that is tethered to the earth stretching into outer space and all the while the earth is spinning on its axis. How would it not "wind" around the planet, and how would we keep fowl and aircraft and the like from flying into to it. I don't like elevators that climb as high as 50 stories or more, let alone 5,000 miles! LOL

It's beyond me, but the implications are fascinating, to be sure.

January 21, 2009 10:16 AM  
Blogger Rorschach said...

Jean, there is a kind of "magic" orbit that when you are in it you appear to stay directly over one spot on earth. All communication satellites are already in that orbit which is how a satellite TV antenna can point to one fixed spot and still get a signal. This orbit is called geosynchronus orbit. It is 22,500 miles up. If you go to a higher orbit, the earth appears to race ahead of you. If you are in a lower orbit you appear to race ahead of the earth. (assuming you are going from west to east of course)

January 21, 2009 11:10 AM  
Blogger Rorschach said...

Here is a little primer on the concept for you.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_elevator

January 21, 2009 11:13 AM  
Blogger Jean said...

Cool beans! I'll look at it tomorrow. I've had contractors in and out for the past two days putting a new roof on the house and rebuilding the skeleton structure of the front room that got wiped out during Ike. I'm without running water again, but hopefully that will be remedied tomorrow. I'm pooped just watching everyone else work! LOL And the noise has been incredible!

January 21, 2009 6:59 PM  

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