Contest seeking elevator to space

Published: Monday, Oct. 22 2007 12:23 a.m. MDT

FARMINGTON — The Wagstaff crane stretching more than 300 feet into the air may look like construction machinery taking a stretch. But if the visionaries behind the Spaceward Games are right, it just might be a scale model of a space elevator, a device to cheaply send material into orbit.

The Davis County Events Center has been hosting the competition, which ends today and which has a $500,000 prize for the first device to climb a heavy ribbon hanging from the top of the crane.

The climber devices had to reach the top at the rate of two meters (about 6 1/2 feet) per second and return to the ground reasonably intact without the use of fuel or batteries.

Instead, the devices, weighing up to 60 pounds, were powered by energy beams alone: solar power beams, microwave beams or laser beams. The climbers would convert the beams' energy into mechanical movement, gripping the ribbon on the race to the top.

In a real space elevator, climbers powered by beams from Earth would "ascend a ribbon 100,000 kilometers (62,000 miles) long, strung between an anchor on Earth and a counterweight in space," says the Spaceward Games Web site.

"Connecting Earth and space in a way never before possible, the space elevator will enable us to inexpensively and completely expand our society into space."

Sunday's competition was halted for a time because afternoon winds were too strong to risk the climbing devices. Members of the eight teams present returned their receiver cell arrays to an exhibition hall where they had set up shop.

"The whole intent of this competition is to demonstrate the technology that can beam energy to a climber," said Athan Tountas, a member of the Punkworks team based in Toronto, which was using microwave power for its device.

Inside the hall, exhibitors were showing off high-tech wares, while tables were piled with gear brought by the teams.

Ken Davidian, NASA's program manager of Centennial Challenges, said the Spaceward Foundation is a nonprofit corporation working with NASA on innovative projects. The costs of the games are not footed by the space agency, he said.

Besides the major prize for beam-powered climbing, smaller awards were offered in other categories.

"The beam power competition runs for five years, and this is year two," Davidian said. The first year's top prize was $200,000, and because nobody won, it rolled over to the 2007 contest. This year's award was $300,000 and combined with the first year's prize, the competition is now worth a cool half-million for the winning team.

A climber sponsored by the Kansas City Space Pirates made it to the top of the tether in a little more than one minute. "They got to the top," Davidian said. "They weren't going fast enough, and they were losing pieces coming down."

Twenty-nine teams signed up, and eight actually went to Farmington for the contest. Of these, four qualified for the contest, which is being held in Utah for the first time. The Technology Tycoons climber reached within 10 feet of the top, and UBC went too slowly.

This is not a collegiate competition; Punkworks had only one student as a member while the rest are professionals working in various fields.

One of the teams that failed to qualify was "Centaurus," from Logan.

Why was Farmington the locale this year? Davis County officials heard about the contest and offered the the events center, Davidian said.

"It's kind of exciting," Davidian said. "It's sort of like war, where there's long periods of boredom followed by minutes of intense excitement."

Late Sunday, the big prize was still awaiting a winner. Other attempts are planned for today.


E-mail: bau@desnews.com

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