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October 3, 2018

I DON’T KNOW, I CAN IMAGINE AN AWFUL LOT: A colossal elevator to space could be going up sooner than you ever imagined.

A space elevator would be the single largest engineering project ever undertaken and could cost close to $10 billion to build. But it could reduce the cost of putting things into orbit from roughly $3,500 per pound today to as little as $25 per pound, says Peter Swan, president of International Space Elevator Consortium (ISEC), based in Santa Ana, California.

The idea for a space elevator was first dreamed up in 1895 by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian scientist who did pioneering work in rocketry. As commonly conceived today, a space elevator would consist of motorized elevator pods that are powered up and down a ground-to-space tether. The tether would stretch from a spaceport at the equator to a space station in geosynchronous orbit overhead. Centrifugal forces caused by the Earth’s rotation would hold the tether aloft.

The ISS experiment, dubbed Space Tethered Autonomous Robotic Satellite–Mini elevator, or STARS-Me, was devised by physicists from Japan’s Shizuoka University. It will simulate on a small scale the conditions that the components of such a system would encounter. Cameras will examine the movement of a pair of tiny “cubesats” along a 10-meter tether in a weightless environment.

A baby step, but so was Goddard’s rocket.