Remember how the Ansari X-Prize resulted in the nascent commercial space trip business, with Virgin Galactic in the lead? Now there's a similar push to innovate space technology, but of a different sort: Space elevators, making the ride into orbit amazingly cheap and easy.
The Space Elevator Games are just kicking off in the Mojave desert, partly funded by NASA's Centennial Challenges program via the Spaceward Foundation, and with a $2 million prize up for grabs. The idea, much like the X-Prize, is to spur the development of a new technology—three teams are taking part this year, with the goal of getting their vehicles to climb a cable 1,000 meters into the sky at an average speed of 5 meters per second.
If you haven't heard about space elevator technology, its name pretty much explains how it works. A cable is strung between a launch point and a geostationary satellite in orbit, dangling all the way up from the ground through the atmosphere into space. Elevator cars will then ride up and down the cable, powered by ground-fired laser beams, and ferrying equipment and personnel into space without all the expense, fuss and risk of a rocket launch. When they become technically feasible, they'll make access to space about as simple and easy a task as driving a car, and they'll drop the costs of launching satellites by an extraordinary amount—completely transforming how we think about space travel.
Hence the Space Elevator Games existence, since the task of actually building an elevator is extremely challenging—the technology to build the cables themselves is only being realized. And there's a significant barrier to actually getting them safely set-up: Space junk, from all the thousands of rocket launches we've already made. British space scientists have just studied the problem anew, and are pushing for action before it becomes too serious and increases the expense and risk of future space missions. But space junk would be an even more serious threat to a space elevator than a rocket or space station, since its cables stretch through many different layers of the space junk cloud—a single collision with a small piece of junk at tens of kilometers a second could easily sever the cable. Maybe NASA should, in parallel with the space elevator effort, be funding Space Junk Games too.