Stairway to the stars

NASA is backing a US company to develop a lunar ‘elevator’ concept that could pave the way for using the technology from Earth.

Star Technology and Research’s elevator could transport cargo to and from a lunar base from a station at the L1 Lagrangian point where the Earth and moon gravity is roughly equal, and could be built with today’s materials, the company claims.

A key stumbling block for elevators from Earth into space is finding a material strong enough to support its own weight from orbit. Lunar gravity is lower, so existing materials could be used, said the researchers.

Jerome Pearson, director of Star Technology, said it is the logical step towards an earth elevator. ‘There are composites we could use now; we don’t need carbon nanotubes,’ he said. ‘Also, the cable doesn’t need to be thickened much to support its weight at the top.’

Lunar orbit is also less crowded than earth orbit, he added. ‘In earth orbit satellites may collide with the system, for example. There would be a real problem in terms of traffic control.’

L1 could become a staging post on the way to low-earth-orbit, carrying lunar materials such as regolith – surface soil and broken rocks – to use as a radiation shield for satellites and spacecraft, he said. ‘The climbers would take a long time to travel up and down the ribbon. But it’s more like a pipeline – once it is started there would be a continuous flow.’

The elevator could form part of Boeing’s proposed lunar refuelling station at the L1 point. ‘You would use thrusters to keep it there, but it doesn’t take much,’ he said. The connection of the ribbon to the surface also acts as a stabiliser.’

NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts is funding the research with $75,000 (£40,000) over six months, potentially leading to a further $400,000 (£216,000) grant.

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