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Space Elevators

When the Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off on April 12, 1981, from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., to begin the first space shuttle mission, the dream of a reusable spacecraft was realized. Since then, NASA has launched more than 100 missions, but the price of space missions has not changed. Whether it is the space shuttle or the non-reusable Russian spacecraft, the cost of a launch is approximately $22,000 per kg.

But many years prior to these events, in his 1979 novel, The Fountains of Paradise, Arthur C Clarke had written about an elevator connecting the earth's surface to space. Three decades later, this science-fiction concept is preparing to take off in the real world. NASA has launched the Space Elevator Challenge, a competition with a generous prize, and several teams and companies are working on serious research projects aimed at winning it.

As its name suggests, a space elevator is designed to raise things into space. Satellites, components for space ships, supplies for astronauts in space stations, and even astronauts themselves are examples of payloads that could be transported into orbit without the need for explosive and environmentally unfriendly rockets. A new space transportation system like this could make travel to geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) a daily event and transform the global economy. As researchers predict, space elevator would be able to carry cargo and humans into space at a price of only about $220-$880 per kg.

However, the altitude of orbital space a colossal 35,790 km above the earth is a measure of the challenge facing engineers. How could such a height be reached? The answer is by using an incredibly strong and lightweight cable, strong enough to support its own weight and a heavy load. It would be attached to a base station on earth at one end and a satellite in geostationary orbit (fixed above a point on the equator) at the other. Lift vehicles would ascend and descend the cable, powered by electromagnetic force and controlled remotely. The design of such a cable is still largely theoretical but current material that could be used for this purpose is carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes have the potential to be 100 times stronger than steel and are as flexible as plastic. The strength of carbon nanotubes comes from their unique structure. Once scientists are able to make fibers from carbon nanotubes, it will be possible to create threads that will form the ribbon for the space elevator. A ribbon could be built in two ways:

Long carbon nanotubes -- several meters long or longer -- would be braided into a structure resembling a rope. As of 2005, the longest nanotubes are still only a few centimeters long.

Shorter nanotubes could be placed in a polymer matrix. Current polymers do not bind well to carbon nanotubes, which results in the matrix being pulled away from the nanotubes when placed under tension.

The ribbon would serve as the tracks of a sort of railroad into space. Mechanical lifters would then be used to climb the ribbon to space.


The space elevator could replace the space shuttle as the main space vehicle, and be used for satellite deployment, defense, tourism and further exploration. To the latter point, a spacecraft would climb the ribbon of the elevator and then would launch toward its main target once in space. This type of launch would require less fuel than would normally be needed to break out of Earth's atmosphere. Some designers also believe that space elevators could be built on other planets, including Mars.


Task 15. Match the verbs from the text to the definitions.


  1. connecting
  2. raise
  3. transported
  4. support
  5. attached
  6. ascend
  7. descend
  8. powered
  9. controlled
  10. ribbon
a) carried (objects, over a distance) b) hold something firmly / bear its weight c) climb down d) provided with energy / moved by a force e) joining f) driven / have movement directed g) flat cable h) climb up i) lift / make something go up j) fixed


Listening 4.1


Task 16. James, an engineer, is giving a talk on space elevators. Listen to him and complete his short notes.

Space Elevators

Challenge of connecting a 1)_____________ to earth by cable is significant.

To support its own weight, and be securely 2)_____________ at each end, cable would need phenomenal strength-to-weight ratio.

How could vehicles be 3)_____________ into space, up cable?

Self-contained energy source problematic, due to 4)_____________ (heavy fuel or batteries required to power vehicle).

Two possible ways round problem:

First. Transmit electricity 5)_____________. But technique is only at 6)__________ stage.

Second. Solar power. But would only allow vehicle to 7)________________ slowly. Not necessarily a problem, as car could be controlled 8)_____________, allowing it to transport 9)_____________ unmanned.


Task 17. Some space elevator designs propose an offshore base station. In pairs discuss how such a system might work using words in Task 1. What advantages might an offshore base have compared with a land base (onshore)?


Listening 4.2


Task 18. James goes on to discuss offshore base stations. Listen to the talk and answer the following questions.





  1. How would an offshore base station be supported?
  2. What would the function of its anchors be?
  3. How would payloads reach the base station?
  4. What problem would a mobile base station help to prevent?
  5. What would the procedure be if there was an alert?


Task 19. You are members of a space elevator research team designing a concept for offshore base stations. In pairs, analyze the notes below, discuss the questions raised in the notes, and think of some suitable solutions for the anchoring system and the propulsion system. At this stage, these should be overall concepts, not detailed designs.





Strong winds?

How to move the base fast?

How to stop the base and fix its position in water?

In deep water or near the cost?

Task 20. In small groups, take turns to give a short talk using your notes to explain how the systems work, in general terms. Imagine you are speaking to a small group of colleagues, including your manager.


Task 21. Write two or three paragraphs to summarize your talk.


Module 4 Vocabulary List



a crew

a plane (not an airplane)





as a whole







criterion (pl criteria)



dwarf (pl dwarves)




far-farther/ further -the farthest/ furthest











recessional velocity

scattered (disk)





supernova (pl supernovae)


to account for (something)

to achieve your aims/ a target/a goal

to ascend

to attach

to be comprised of

to come to / draw a conclusion

to descend

to do, conduct, carry out research

to expand

to expose

to float

to orbit (smth)

to outweigh

to point to smth

to raise

to reach

to revolve

to rise-rose-risen

to rotate

to stretch

to take into account

to weigh up



Topics for speaking:

  1. The Solar System
  2. The Big Bang
  3. The Red-Shift
  4. Dark Matter and Energy
  5. Mars Exploration
  6. Future Transport: Space Elevators

Date: 2015-01-11; view: 5337

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