I'm not the most optimistic person. In fact I might be in the running for the least optimistic and most cynical. I've never bought into the persistent American belief that technology will solve all of our problems if only we wait long enough and believe hard enough. An honest appraisal of the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath shows that while we solved a lot of problems that plagued humanity for centuries, it also created new ones that we either can't or won't solve. We tried blind faith in the power of technology and science for a long time and it has made us cocky. "Whatever, we'll figure something out" has become our excuse for refusing to do anything that isn't convenient and preferably indulgent.

One future technology that I do think deserves a lot of attention, though, is a fairly mundane one at a time when people are less enthusiastic than ever about pouring money into space. The advances in materials science in the last ten years have been staggering, and we might be inching closer to the capability to construct space elevators. Here's why I think that's more important than most of us realize.

Well. First, a quick word about the technology. A space elevator is a means of putting objects into orbit without using rockets. A long (we're talking 100+ miles long) cable connecting a point on the surface of the Earth to a geosynchronous satellite and a counterweight (like a small space station) at the opposite end. Then simple mechanical means are used to move cargo up and down it, like a vertically oriented cable car. While it wouldn't make space cheap or easy in the sense of hopping on a bus, it would be vastly cheaper, easier, and more productive than moving things into orbit via rocket launch.

People like this idea because it can increase the amount of Cool Space Shit we can do for a given amount of resources. I think it holds a ton of potential to help us stop poisoning ourselves with things like toxic and nuclear waste. We accumulate hundreds of thousands of tons of dangerous waste every year and currently it's sitting around in surface holding areas until some (inevitably southern) state or nation gets desperate and poor enough to take it and bury it. Once underground, of course, it's only a matter of time until it comes back to haunt us. So when I first heard of this idea in sci-fi fiction as a kid (the idea of a space elevator has been around since the 1890s, with theoretical papers proving that the concept is feasible starting in the 1960s) it struck me as a great way to deal with some of the more aggressively lethal ways we've messed with the planet. Nuclear waste, for example, is sealed in large metal casks and then buried…or held for burial until we find a place to bury them. Instead, we could use a space elevator as a conveyor belt to take them into an orbital facility. Then, using small rockets in the absence of gravity, we point them on a trajectory to the Sun and let 'em go. They're incinerated down to the atomic level as they approach it.

It sounds a little nuts, granted. But in practical terms, why not? Graphene, carbon nanotubes, and diamond thread filaments – all developed in the last five years – are the materials we've lacked to build a sufficiently strong tether cable. In ten or fifteen years even better, stronger materials are likely to be developed. And once the material is in orbit, it's not like we'd be polluting outer space with it. You push it on a predictable trajectory and as soon as it gets near its destination, that's that. You can't damage the Sun. Hell, you can't even get anything man made remotely close to it.

I don't think we're going to see these tomorrow, or even in 2020. But any point in the past at which we've looked at this idea and said "It can't be done", the subsequent ten years have shown exponential advancements in the necessary materials and technology. Twenty years from now this is going to be feasible. It's an expensive way to dispose of our endless garbage, but only if you consider the price we pay for keeping it on Earth to be cheap. It might not require much money, but the hidden costs are staggering.

44 thoughts on “NPF: TECHNOBABBLE”

  • What does the fail-safe mode look like on a space elevator? I mean, how do you prevent barrels of nuclear waste from raining down from the sky if something goes wrong while a load is in transit?

  • ADifferentMatt says:

    if we switch over to nuclear energy because all of a sudden we could fire all our waste into the sun – would our materials be renewable?

    And let's say within 100 every nation on earth industrializes and thus every nation on earth handles their nuc. waste this way. And maybe what's more, every nation on earth handles all – or at least all dangerous (eg medical?) waste – this way. At what point would the earth be depleted of some essential material? 100 years? 200? 5?

    And how soon would people get fired off into the sun? I mean, that happens almost instantaneously, right? North Korea, Iran, ISIS, half of Europe, S.A., the U.S. are absolutely firing people off into the sun on day 2, right?

  • Leading Edge Boomer says:

    From this:
    "A geostationary orbit (GEO) is a circular geosynchronous orbit in the plane of the Earth's equator with a radius of approximately 42,164 km (26,199 mi) (measured from the center of the Earth). A satellite in such an orbit is at an altitude of approximately 35,786 km (22,236 mi) above mean sea level."

    So a space elevator, no doubt made of carbon nanotube material for the required strength, would have to be over 22K miles long to reach a geostationary satellite and thus form an "elevator shaft," not the 100+ miles envisioned here.

    To make a stationary satellite at a lower orbit would require a constant energy expenditure to keep it there, not a feasible idea.

  • @LEB you'd also need a decent length of cable above GEO so gravitational tides help stabilize the cable. But what's an extra couple thousand miles when you've already constructed a cable this long?

    But first of all: YES YES YES space elevators FTW! And GEO solar power stations right after that (and once you have the space elevator cable there, the problem of the microwave laser becomes moot, and the solar power plant becomes that much more feasible, making the entire energy consumption of the planet cheaper and renewable).

    One of the interesting points, though, is that you need an actual equatorial country to have the ground station. The usual suspects will have a hard time convincing everybody else that shooting people off into the sun is a good idea (unless they're already dead), and some serious development money will go into the relevant thirteen countries in South America, middle Africa and Oceania.

  • PhonicianRomans says:

    Then, using small rockets in the absence of gravity, we point them on a trajectory to the Sun and let 'em go. They're incinerated down to the atomic level as they approach it.

    It sounds a little nuts, granted. But in practical terms, why not?

    The Earth is moving at 29.78 km/s relative to the sun. To drop something in LEO into the sun will require enough delta-V to overcome orbit (say, 2km/s) and enough delta-V to counter Earth's velocity, so about 32 km/s altogether. Anything less than that, and your nuclear waste goes into an elliptic orbit that intersects Earth's own – you get hot nuclear waste coming back into our vicinity on a regular basis.

    To chuck it out of the solar system entirely takes 42.1 km/s – but here, we can use Earth's movement as a boost – so a bit over 12 km/s additional is needed.

    By comparison, escape velocity from Earth's surface is around 11.2 km/s.

    TL;DR – it's considerably harder to drop something in orbit around the Earth into the sun than it is to get to leave Earth forever – and even to throw it out of the solar system entirely.

  • PhoenicianRomans says:

    However, there's an additional trick here – assuming we're not talking about a space fountain or other similar system, your elevator must run up to a station in GEO – and have a long counterweight tether on the other side. Include an elevator on that tether, move your nuclear waste "down" from the station to the counterweight, and when you let go, you have additional delta V which will easily be enough to escape Earth orbit.

  • moderateindy says:

    Rgarding the nuclear waste, and nuclear power in general; our irrational fear of nuclear power has been very problematic. Had we continued on a path where nukes were a priority, I wonder what kind of advances we would have made in both efficiency, and safety? If we had emphasized research, would we have been able to recycle most, or all the waste that exists and thus reduce, or eliminate it?
    It's already being done in some cases, but once we move to fourth-generation fast neutron reactors in the late 2020s the outlook changes dramatically, and means that not only used fuel from today’s reactors but also the large stockpiles of depleted uranium (from enrichment plants, about 1.5 million tons in 2015) become a fuel source.
    So you see space elevators, and the potential risks posed, are already an obsoloete remedy.
    Had we just continued the research, and progress we were making on nukes, instead of freaking out about the risks, would we already be close to having such reactors now?
    By the way, such reprocessing of the waste would also sharply cut the need for uranium mining.

  • @PhoenicianRomans it seems Ed was talking about GEO facilities and not LEO (despite the 100+ miles reference), in which case getting something to drop into the sun is less of an issue- you start it from the point where the orbital speed of the satellite is in the opposite direction to the orbital speed of the earth around the sun, and accelerate towards the sun from there. You'd still need a not-insiginficant amount of fuel, but since the payloads will be small you should be able to use alternative propulsion methods (even going as far as sun-sails).

  • BTW, another interesting challenge for the space elevator is space debris (and the various and interesting failure-modes it can induce). It will also pose a challenge to existing satellites in low earth orbit, which were never planned to handle something fixed in one place. Cue headaches galore in all the world's space agencies…

  • Sorry Ed, but this is very wrong:

    Then, using small rockets in the absence of gravity, we point them on a trajectory to the Sun and let 'em go.

    Gravity doesn't go away in orbit. The whole reason you stay in orbit at all (instead of flying off into the vastness of space) is because the Earth's gravity is continually pulling you downwards. Astronauts in orbit appear to be weightless because they're in free fall, not because there's no gravity.

    Inertia also doesn't go away in space. Massive objects are hard to move on the Earth's surface, and they're also hard to move in orbit. An astronaut isn't able to push around a huge canister of nuclear waste as if it was empty.

    (PhonecianRomans correctly expresses the above in much more technical language.)

    Also, if you want a nuclear waste dump in space, it's not necessary to fire the waste into the Sun (although it would be cool). The Moon is a lot closer and you can drop it there instead.

    One advantage of a space elevator not mentioned yet: The energy saving from bringing things back down.

    A space elevator is much more efficient than a rocket, but you still need energy to lift material into orbit. However, that can come from the gravitational potential energy of material that's already in orbit — for instance, metal you have mined from the asteroids. As your chunk of asteroid comes down, its weight can be used to lift up an elevator car by means of a pulley.

  • PhoenicianRomans says:

    You'd still need a not-insiginficant amount of fuel, but since the payloads will be small you should be able to use alternative propulsion methods (even going as far as sun-sails).

    You're going to accelerate TOWARDS the sun using a sun-sail? Uh-huh – you do realise that it can't act as a wing-shape, like a wind sail, right?

    I think you're wrong about the idea of opposing earth orbital speed – my impression is that accelerating out of orbit is more a spiraling effect. However we are reaching past my limit of understanding.

  • How to construct a space elevator, for dummies:
    a) put satellite in geostationary orbit
    b) unreel two cables, one towards earth and one away from it (so the center of mass remains in GEO)
    c) tie down one end on earth's surface, attach a weight to the other end.

    Depending on the mass of the counterweight, the line doesn't need to extend to 2xGEO, but it has to go well above geostationary (~22k miles as mentioned above).

    Merely letting go of something at the outer end will provide enough momentum to reach Mars or Venus.

    @jacquilynne, fail-safe modes on a space elevator:
    something just falling down is surprisingly easy to cope with, even if it's falling from a couple thousand kilometers.

    I won't even try to imagine what it takes to build the elevator in the first place (the Apollo program will look tiny in comparison), but once it's build, the cost of sending mass to space will be slight. You can totally afford to wrap everything in a container that will survive reentry, and slap on a parachute for a soft landing.

    Anyhow, whether to entrust that thing with toxic waste is the decision of whatever generation gets to build and operate that thing. I'd be surprised if it became possible in my lifetime, and certainly don't expect it to be finished before my demise.

  • Most of the comments go over my head-bad pun, it's early-but here's my contribution. My father's company in the 1970's created for the space program insulation for fuel tanks. They described it this way: take an egg, wrap in a layer of insulation as thin as a piece of paper, put it in the oven, turn to 365 degrees, leave it for 365 days, take off insulation, the egg is still raw.
    Imagine the energy savings possible if we used that technology for buildings, houses, machinery, power lines, etc. I'm neither a Ludite nor a techno believer. But some of this shit is pretty amazing and we won't get to it any other way than by space programs, or so it seems.

  • One downside: a failure (especially post-atmosphere) of the traction system on the elevator carrying those waste containers could more-or-less dirty-bomb the whole planet by accident on re-entry…

  • You might want to consider reprocessing the nuclear waste first, this will give you a reduction in that, as a large percentage of the waste is from the Pentagon has all the PU-239 it needs, and then some, and forty years ago Congress wouldn't fund UREX reprocessing, possibly to spite Jimmy Carter, who was the wrong kind of Democrat then.
    What I think you've missed, with access to space without rocketry, space-based solar power gets much better economics, possibly eliminating the need to build nuclear power stations, or mine coal.

  • Major Kong, that "who'll pay for it" point occurred to me as well; assuming it can't be weaponized, I think it'll be private industry rather than NASA.

    Energy conglomerates, assuming they consider this to be a cost-effective project, could certainly scrape together the cash to do it. LK raises the issue of where to put the thing, which leads to the notion that if this happens, it'll be a Koch Brothers-led project, taking place somewhere they've pulled a "United Fruit" on the local government. (Think Dr. No on Crab Key.)

    I mean, in the abstract, it'll still be cool as hell. But it'll likely be something that leaves a lot of stick moral residue all over the place.

  • I'm a lifelong science nerd and science fiction fan, but as I get older I find myself thinking more and more that we engage in magical thinking that technology will somehow save us from our mindless destruction of the environment.

    Whereas in reality we're a herd of antelope that has overpopulated and overgrazed the plains and a hard winter is coming.

  • @J Dryden: Energy conglomerates won't even build a nuclear plant without boatloads of taxpayer subsidies. I don't see them stepping up to fund a project that's never been tried before that is orders of magnitude more expensive.

  • Wouldn't atomic-powered railguns be a better way to dispose of nuclear waste? Just stick the stuff in a casket of iron and shoot it up towards the sun at enough velocity and it should get there, no?

    I don't know about people going at supersonic speeds, but for certain types of trash? It sounds perfect.

  • I don't know why every talks about going "into space." We ARE in space. That's where we live. We are on a ball (and a small one) spinning around with a bunch of other balls — in space. It's not like the earth is an anchored platform. We are in space already. For us to say we want to go into space is like a fish in the ocean saying he'd really like to go into water.

  • Yeah, Skipper. I was wondering just how much mass we would have to eject from the bottom of our little gravitational well before the it got shallow enough for all the oxygen to drift upwards and away and our little gravity vortex to go into a slightly different orbit around the sun.

  • Skipper, you reminded me of Buckminster Fuller. He argued that the resources (raw materials, energy, human creativity) traditionally devoted to military applications would, if applied to 'livingry', result in just this sort of thing. That is, space elevators.

    I'm all for getting nuclear waste off the planet. Part of the problem with it, and waste in general, is that "throw it away" has been the human default solution as long as we've been human. We ran out of "away" before we came up with Solution B.

  • I thought the big idea was for nuclear waste depots on the moon. Maybe a moonbase named after a Greek letter, some moon buggies, moon shuttles.

  • sylvainsylvain says:

    From all my old sf reading in my youth…

    A space elevator would be a game changer; getting off the mudball would be easier, and would give us a way to access the rest of the solar system. Travelling to the moon, Mars, and the asteroid belt would become similar to ocean travel in the pre-steamship era – access to resources out of earth's gravity well could get us away from stripping the planet of every last bit of everything, which is why it's so attractive.

    To address the post…I remember someone from my childhood who said we *shouldn't* dispose of our waste by throwing it into space. The premise behind this was that what is waste to us now could be valuable later. Better to store it (say, on the moon) in case we ever need it.

  • A space elevator would be great, but we'd do better going for solar if the goal is solving our energy problem. Solar power is just starting to get as cheap of coal thanks to the Chinese government throwing money at the problem for the last 10 or 15 years. It is just going to get cheaper, and storage batteries are getting cheaper as well now that we are starting to throw money at them as well. There is nothing like wasteful government spending to get a new technology established.

    Nuclear power could work, but it requires serious engineering, and it means that we have dangerous materials like uranium and plutonium sitting around. The French have done a great job with nuclear power, but even they have yet to get their breeder reactor working well enough for second stage recycling. I'm not saying it can't be made to work, just that solar is closer to working with fewer downsides. Not everyone has the technological mindset of the French.


    For a funny article on how solar power has gotten so cheap:

  • Its really the development of the carbon nano tubes that seems to be the principal obstacle to the whole space elevator thing. They've been "18 months away" from being able to exceed about a meter of tube length for about 15 years now, so really the breakthrough discovery could come at any moment. And opening up the Solar System is the first step to opeming up the galaxy….

  • paintedjaguar says:

    People working in science and engineering are constantly developing new things to wonder at. But we already have the tech to do all sorts of amazing things that we are not doing. The real problems we are dealing with are political, not technological.

  • The construction of a space elevator presupposes a self sufficient space industry. By which I mean the only things that have to hauled up the gravity well would be people and maybe foodstuffs. We're talking about megatons of material for a project like this. It can't come from Earth, it would mean ruining the planet in order to save it. Fortunately technology is just about there to let us get started. There are companies seriously talking about moving asteroids already. High impulse ion motors have moved from theory into development and a therapy to prevent bone loss is in the offing. That last alone is huge in terms of a human presence in space. I'd still recommend doing your reproducing before you go though. We could start to do it with today's technology. It would be crude and dangerous but we could do it. But we won't.

  • Others have already pointed out the issues with space elevators. (No reason not to try it on, say, the Moon, but the thing is only elegant in fiction on Earth.)

    The thing I wanted to add is that using any kind of technology to get rid of nuclear waste is like using Faberge eggs to go bowling. Nuclear energy itself is, in Amory Lovins' great phrase, like cutting butter with a chainsaw. It's just stupid if there is any other way to get at the butter, and there is. At this point solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and tidal power are all vastly more practical and cheaper without poisoning the planet.

    Why generate waste when you don't have to? There would be much better and more interesting things to do with a space elevator than turning it into a garbage dump.

  • @drouse: trying to put the undertaking into perspective, I come up empty.

    I *guess* it would take an effort on about the same scale as constructing the global power grid. Wich took a couple of decades and could happen in many increments, each of which was useful in itself.

    Whereas the space elevator will be no good until it's finally completed.

  • As a side benefit, just having a cable exposed to fluctuations in earths magnetic field would generate oodles of power all by itself. They already performed the experiment off one of the shuttles years ago.

  • @Laie

    Like the journey of a thousand miles that begins with a single step. Of course, the prospect of having the planet become uninhabitable might provide some incentive.

  • I disagree about the elevator not being useful until completion. Just beginning the process will create entirely new industries and a self=sustaining population to run them.

  • Now, now, Ed. You know full well that the only people who deserve to live in nice, clean areas free of waste are those who work hard enough to earn sufficient money to build their OWN disposal solutions from the ground up.

    In other words… Poo is John Galt!!

  • @ Well mostly
    Or paint roofs white to reflect sunlight. Cheap (often among the cheapest roof option) and ridiculously effective at reducing impact on global warming.

  • @ Kaleberg
    China's thrown plenty of money at nuclear power as well. They've spent the last 25 years knocking off licensed intellectual property to their own design solutions so they can now build multiple plants/year as Chinese made plants. Next stop – Africa.

    If we're (and they're) lucky they'll continue to look into pebble bed reactors and other designs that are safer than the traditional yet highly advanced since the 1950 version designs.–Nuclear-Power/

  • Arthur C. Clarke was a big fan of space elevators (skyhooks!). His novel The Fountains of Paradise was about building a space elevator in Sri Lanka.

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