LOS ANGELES | A space elevator may not be rocket science but it can be just as complicated — and rewarding.
After three years without a winner in a NASA-backed competition to develop the science fiction space elevator concept, a team from Seattle on Friday collected $900,000 after its laser-powered robotic machine raced up more than 2,950 feet of cable dangling from a helicopter.
LaserMotive LLC was presented the check by Andy Petro, progam manager of NASA's Centennial Challenges, in a ceremony at Dryden Flight Research Facility on Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert.
Powered by a ground-based laser pointed up at the robot's downward-facing photo voltaic cells that converted the light into electricity, the LaserMotive machine completed one of its climbs in about three minutes and 48 seconds, good for second-place money.
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The three-day contest required competitors' vehicles to get to the top, with rewards possible for completing climbs at two levels of speed. LaserMotive could have claimed $2 million if its robot had climbed faster.
The two other teams, KC Space Pirates of Kansas City and the University of Saskatchewan's Space Design Team, finished out of the money. Neither of their machines made it to the top.
Space elevators have been theorized since the 1960s but only exist in science fiction. Theoretically, such an elevator would provide access to space by climbing up a tether anchored in the ground and extending out to a mass orbiting in a fixed spot over the Earth, just as communications satellites do now.
The fourth Space Elevator Games addressed a baby step in the engineering challenging of the concept, not the larger debates of whether physics, materials technology and economics would ever allow one to be built.
“I think it was an ideal Centennial Challenges competition,” Petro said in a telephone interview. “We had students, entrepreneurs and independent inventors. It's a very difficult challenge. It's taken the teams four years for anyone to win.”
Thomas Nugent, one of the principals of LaserMotive, said the company believed the contest would demonstrate the concept of “power beaming” — transmitting energy by laser over long distances.
Nugent said there are numerous immediate applications such as providing power to remote areas of military bases or operating electrically powered unmanned aircraft for extended periods.
Nugent said he personally doesn't believe a space elevator would work on Earth but may be practical for the moon or Mars.
“It took a lot of years of hard work by just a great team of people who have understanding families,” he said.