Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Great Diaphragm in the Sky

A great deal of attention has been paid, recently, to the concept of a space "elevator." It's really only the newest idea in a long line of ideas on how to get into space on the cheap. Well, I guess "newest" isn't the right word since it's been around for some time. I guess the right way to describe it is as the most recent idea to become trendy.

Past ideas have included such winners as a giant sling shot, a magnetic lift, a magnetic sling shot, and the ever popular big-ass space shuttle cannon. The lift has really gained traction recently thanks to the emergence of carbon nanotubes, which promise new super materials. The main problem facing the space elevator is out of what we make the cable. When you have a cable that's thousands of miles long, the weight of the cable itself is enough to snap the cable. Ultra-light, ultra-strong materials must be invented before we could achieve the dream.

Well, along with carbon nanotubes, we now have meta-materials. These are atoms of known materials arranged in such a way as to give the final product entirely new properties, as though they were a new kind of material. These two new toys have given futurists and arm-chair dreamers (such as yours truly) the ability to say that the problem will be solved because LOOK AT THESE NEW MATERIALS! We'll undoubtedly get there with these!

Well I think that approach is stupid. In fact, I don't think we need the new wonder-materials. With materials we have now, materials directly on the horizon, and, oh yeah, a butt-load of money, we could develop a space elevator today. First, many of the big problems with the cable's strength can be eliminated if we start the cable at high altitude. The higher up we go, the weaker the gravitational force, the less cable, and the shorter the distance.

The focal point of my plan is rather absurd and dismissed by most, but I'm confident that it's sound. My idea involves balloons. Giant balloons, of course. The biggest balloons ever created. Imagine giant blimps, hundreds of times larger than the Hindenburg, supporting large, aerial, shipping platforms. We could have a ground based elevator attached to one at low altitude. This platform could theoretically be anchored to the ground. The second platform would be connected by yet another (relatively) short elevator to the first platform. By now, altitudes would high enough to be above the weather and storms would only ever be a consideration for the first platform. Finally, a series of higher platforms up into the mesosphere, with a final elevator into the thermosphere, where a station of some sort is waiting.

The second plan, and one I consider more cost-effective, is one where the first station is in the mesosphere. In this scenario, ground-launched airships deliver cargo to the station which is then lifted to two or three more platforms until delivery into space. Obviously, at such high altitudes, debris falling to earth will become a problem, but here is where I get to invoke the deus ex machina of future wonder-materials. The balloon skins will be made from indestructible carbon nanotube skin.

Oh, and to explain my title, I imagine that the large platforms would look similar to giant, inflated diaphragms in the sky. Or perhaps red blood cells.

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