Japan has launched a miniature space elevator

If successful, STARS-Me could pave the way from science fiction to reality

space elevator illustration

GOING UP  The Japanese STARS-Me experiment (illustrated) will test for the first time a tiny elevator car moving along a 10-meter cable in space.


A pair of tiny satellites that will help test technology for a space elevator is on its way to the International Space Station.

At 1:52 p.m. EDT on September 22, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched a rocket carrying the STARS-Me experiment from the island of Tanegashima.

STARS-Me (or Space Tethered Autonomous Robotic Satellite – Mini elevator), built by engineers at Shizuoka University in Japan, is comprised of two 10-centimeter cubic satellites connected by a 10-meter-long tether. A small robot representing an elevator car, about 3 centimeters across and 6 centimeters tall, will move up and down the cable using a motor as the experiment floats in space.

Previous experiments, including three other STARS setups, have flown satellites tethered with a cable, but STARS-Me is the first to test movement along the cable in space.

A full-scale space elevator, if ever built, might use a similar setup to ferry astronauts and cargo from Earth to orbit much more cheaply and efficiently than rocket launches. Scientists have dreamed of space elevators since the late 1800s, but the technology is still the stuff of science fiction.

Nonetheless, Japan’s Obayashi Corporation hopes to build such an elevator by 2050. The design involves a 96,000-kilometer-long, carbon-nanotube cable attached to a floating “Earth Port” in the ocean on one end and a space station on the other.

“The current technology levels are not yet sufficient to realize the concept, but our plan is realistic,” the corporation’s website reads. If STARS-Me is successful, it could bring that vision a tiny step closer to reality.

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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