Can you build a ladder to space

The Japanese want to build a space elevator by 2050

A lift into space should no longer remain a sheer science fiction vision. The Japanese construction company Obayashi, which has built Japan's tallest building, the Tokyo Sky Tree, with a height of 634 meters, wants to build a 96,000-kilometer elevator into space by 2050. The extensive construction is to be used for the transport of astronauts and cargo to a space station that has yet to be built and costs only a fraction of the space shuttle.

Taking the elevator into space: what sounds like science fiction should definitely become reality. In Japan, companies and universities are working on such plans. It should take less than 40 years before the trip to the moon by lift is possible.

Photo: Obayashi

According to Obayashi's ambitious future concept, robotic vehicles should use a cable made of nanotubes to transport up to 30 people into space at a speed of around 200 kilometers per hour. The new transport system should be made possible by the latest developments in the field of carbon nanotubes and nanotechnology in general. According to Yoji Ishikawa, Head of Research and Development at Obayashi, the tubes developed for this purpose should be a hundred times stronger than steel and weigh significantly less.

Only three centimeters long cables are possible

However, the construction company has not yet succeeded in producing tubes that are long enough. “So far we have only been able to manufacture cables three centimeters long. That's not long enough, ”says Ishikawa. In addition, the carbon tubes corrode. A suitable insulation must therefore be found. The construction company expects to be ready for mass production by 2030.

Material transport with elevator cheaper than with space shuttle

Japanese experts believe that a space elevator could signal the end of Earth-based rockets, which are extremely expensive and dangerous. The transport of material into space with a space shuttle costs 22,000 dollars per kilogram. It is estimated that the cost of a space elevator could be as low as $ 200. This would make space research and space tourism much cheaper. From Obayashi's point of view, the futuristic elevator would revolutionize space tourism. The founder and head of the American company LiftPort has similar plans.

According to Obayashi's future concept, robotic vehicles should use a cable made of nanotubes to transport up to 30 people into space at a speed of around 200 kilometers per hour.

Source: Obayashi Corporation

The journey of the 36,000-kilometer route from Earth to the space platform would take a good week. The idea is that the tourists get off there, while the scientists could go on.

International cooperation in demand

Obayashi is now working with a number of Japanese universities and is also thinking of stronger international cooperation. “No single company can realize the project. The whole thing should be a global project, ”says Ishikawa.

A team at Kanagawa University in Yokohama is currently working on so-called robot cars or climbers that pull themselves up on the cable of a space elevator. According to Professor Tadashi Egami, “the tension of the cables varies according to height and gravity. The team is working on mechanisms that enable ascent at different heights and at the same time also on suitable braking systems for descent.

A contribution by:

  • Peter Odrich

    Peter Odrich studied business administration with a focus on transport companies. After 28 years as a business editor for a German national daily newspaper with long activities in East Asia, he returned to his native Great Britain. Since then he has reported freelance for newspapers and technical information services in various countries. Transport issues, metals and East Asian issues are in the foreground.