Google X Confirms The Rumors: It Really Did Try To Design A Space Elevator

Google X's imagination is sky-high.

A working space elevator is still, sadly, not a reality. But sci-fi geeks may be excited to know that some of the most intelligent and imaginative minds on Earth have indeed looked into the logistics of building such a fanciful contraption. Rich DeVaul, head of Google X's Rapid Evaluation team, has confirmed for the first time ever that Google's super hush-hush R&D lab actually tried to design one.

"It would be a massive capital investment," he said in this month's issue of Fast Company. But once this hypothetical machine was built, "it could take you from ground to orbit with a net of basically zero energy. It drives down the space-access costs, operationally, to being incredibly low."

Unfortunately, our current technological landscape has its limitations:

The team knew the cable would have to be exceptionally strong-- "at least a hundred times stronger than the strongest steel that we have," by ­[Google X researcher Dan Piponi]'s calculations. He found one material that could do this: carbon nanotubes. But no one has manufactured a perfectly formed carbon nanotube strand longer than a meter. And so elevators "were put in a deep freeze," as [Google X researcher Mitch Heinrich] says, and the team decided to keep tabs on any advances in the carbon nanotube field.

Google X's space elevator ambitions might be frozen, but they're not dead. Google's just waiting for the material and manufacturing world to catch up with its sky-high ideas.

[Image: Flickr user Aaron Escobar]

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28 Comments

  • Why do they talk about a cable? Is it the only option? With the pressure difference beween earth and space would it not be a good and free way to lift something from the ground? I'm no scientist put maybe a big straw will do the job!

  • Lorris Mosby

    Because if pressure difference between earth and space would be enough to lift things heavier than air into space, then air itself would go into space. Think it this way : the air in the atmosphere try to go out because of the pressure difference, but it is maintained thanks to gravity. Anyway, I recommend you the VSauce "Space straw" video on youtube (and the other video talking about space elevator : "How High Can We Build?" )

  • Edison would not be "just waiting" for "others" to "catch up" to his superior mind. He would be working and testing many, many ideas for ways to make nano-tubes work cheaply. He would likely find one that worked.

  • David Knowles

    Let not rule out the idea that Google are playing around with growing better carbon nanotubes.

  • I often thought how easy it would be to create such a machine. If money were not a factor. I would use light working from space down to earth. Concentrated light & super cooled magnets and then bangity bigty boom there you have a shaft that would take very little propulsion to lift or slow down an object.

  • Tipton Tyler

    Why won't this cable simply disintegrate due to the heat of friction with the atmosphere? Do they figure the atmosphere is spinning at the same velocity as earth? Why don't space vehicles land this way - at the same speed as the revolutions of earth?

  • Zhao Yichen

    a) it won't experience reentry-like atmospheric heating because a space elevator should be designed to be geosynchronous (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geosynchronous_orbit), otherwise the cable would fall to the ground fast. b) because the a significant portion of the rocket fuel used to lift off space vehicles actually send them into an orbit, i.e. circling the earth at high speed, rather than to only put as much space between the space craft and earth. To land on Earth you need to expend this energy, and the cheapest way to do this is to have it enter the atmosphere at high speeds and slow down through friction.

  • Frank VanderEijden

    First you redefine Gravity, then you build your space elevator... We are now at a stage that we think the sun is revolving around the earth -gravity wise speaking. Is gravity a pull force? Newton observed gravity, but could not explain it.

  • SpaceShaft Endeavor

    If this latest attempt of google's "smartest people" of finally coming up with such a conclusion, (after all the work done around the world by other "smart people" enamored by the same Centrifugally Extended Teher concept or design,) it makes me wonder about their intellectual capacity.

    more ..

  • SpaceShaft Endeavor

    What they did as "research" is evidently not new and just a repetition of what others did. They apported nothing new and they just milked the same old cow to gain even more popularity by advertising. Why did they not show their failed prototype work? Moreover, why did they not invest in different concepts parallel to the so called central idea of a tether based system? I hear here nothing new either.

    Beyond google's news, a working space elevator will not become a reality based on magical materials (like unobtainium or carbon nano tubes or any other of its carbon flavors). But instead it will be a device tailor made with "available" different materials and (or) composites and marrying many concepts (not just one). It will be a device serving the specifics of the environment in which it has to operate and for a specific goal. In a nutshell, it will not be at once a device that will serve all the purposes envisioned until now, especially as a device for GEO insertion.

    more..

  • SpaceShaft Endeavor

    As a folkloric note; Tsiolkovsky’s idea was to him, (as a teacher as he was when he wrote about it and well before becoming the rocket scientist he became,) a way to explain how conservation of energy applies in orbital mechanics and not an actual goal. After all he was aiming to become a rocket engineer and what he truly wanted was the elimination of the most difficult part of spaceflight, namely; eliminating the need of a 1st stage of a rocket system and not being at GEO (because for him being at GEO served no other use as of being at a touristic destination. And that should be our goal as well and not to use a shoe that fit all sizes, like automatically being in orbit. Our goal should be first to be in space and then be in orbit, as it was for Tsiolkovsky.

    These attempts of a "Google research" were envisioned as nothing but a cheap advertising campaign aimed to gain even more popularity among a selected group of people and not a honest attempt to apport anything to the effort.

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  • Dax Frost

    Google, Graphene?

    "Graphene is the strongest, thinnest material known to exist. A form of carbon, it can conduct electricity and heat better than anything else. And get ready for this: It is not only the hardest material in the world, but also one of the most pliable. Only a single atom thick, it has been called the wonder material. Graphene could change the electronics industry, ushering in flexible devices, supercharged quantum computers, electronic clothing and computers that can interface with the cells in your body."

    http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/bend-it-charge-it-dunk-it-graphene-the-material-of-tomorrow/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

  • Adam Morton

    Nope literally as of right now there is no industry making that much graphene we havent even been able to shape it yet we have made a couple of sheets but thats it...

  • Logan Rensel

    I have also tried to develop a space elevator.. Unfortunately, I've shelved the idea until better materials become available. Pointless article.. You really didn't iterate anything substantial.