A space elevator is a proposed type of space transportation system. Its main component is a ribbon-like cable (also called a tether) anchored to the surface and extending into space. It is designed to permit vehicle transport along the cable from a planetary surface, such as the Earth’s, directly into space or orbit, without the use of large rockets. An Earth-based space elevator would consist of a cable with one end attached to the surface near the equator and the other end in space beyond geostationary orbit (35,800 km altitude). The competing forces of gravity, which is stronger at the lower end, and the outward/upward centrifugal force, which is stronger at the upper end, would result in the cable being held up, under tension, and stationary over a single position on Earth. Once deployed, the tether would be ascended repeatedly by mechanical means to orbit, and descended to return to the surface from orbit.
The concept for a space elevator was first published in 1895 by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and has since been promoted by legendary scientist and visionary Sir Arthur C Clarke. His proposal was for a free-standing tower reaching from the surface of Earth to the height of geostationary orbit. Like all buildings, Tsiolkovsky’s structure would be under compression, supporting its weight from below. Since 1959, most ideas for space elevators have focused on purely tensile structures, with the weight of the system held up from above. In the tensile concepts, a space tether reaches from a large mass (the counterweight) beyond geostationary orbit to the ground. This structure is held in tension between Earth and the counterweight like an upside-down plumb bob. Space elevators have also sometimes been referred to as beanstalks, space bridges, space lifts, space ladders, skyhooks, orbital towers, or orbital elevators.
On Earth, with its relatively strong gravity, current technology is not capable of manufacturing tether materials that are sufficiently strong and light to build a space elevator. However, recent concepts for a space elevator are notable for their plans to use carbon nanotube or boron nitride nanotube based materials as the tensile element in the tether design. The measured strength of these molecules is high compared to their densities and they hold promise as materials to make an Earth-based space elevator possible.
The concept is also applicable to other planets and celestial bodies. For locations in the solar system with weaker gravity than Earth’s (such as the Moon or Mars), the strength-to-density requirements are not as great for tether materials. Currently available materials (such as Kevlar) are strong and light enough that they could be used as the tether material for elevators there.