Imagine stepping into an elevator and instead of going to the fourth floor you find yourself in outer space.
A Virginia Tech engineering science and mechanics senior design team is working on technology that one day might make that elevator ride possible.
Last month the eight students involved traveled to Mountain View, Calif., to observe the Space Elevator Games in preparation for their entry next year. These games are a competition sponsored by the Spaceward Foundation where groups compete to design an elevator that climbs 150-foot tall tethers which are less than one millimeter thick.
Samantha Vaillant, senior engineering science and mechanics major and team member, said the project is technically a very integrated project that involves electrical, composite, structural and mechanical engineering. Also involved are special fields within those studies such as photovoltaics, which is the technology that will allow the team to convert light energy into power for the elevator.
Meghan Gloyd, another one of the senior engineering science and mechanics major students involved with the project, said that after seeing what the other organizations were doing the Tech team feels like they are on the right track.
?A lot of the problems that some of the other teams had we?ve already thought of,? she said.
Vaillant said that the concept of an elevator to space is made feasible by the relatively new technology of carbon nanotubes, which is a material multiple times stronger and lighter than steel.
?With the different manufacturings of carbon nanotubes they will be able to make a structure that is strong enough to support the weight and the tension to attach it to a geosynchronous satellite in space; granted there will be weather and other natural aspects that will pose a threat to the structure and to the integrity of the system but on paper the technical logistics are there to make this work,? she said.
A geosynchronous satellite in space would rotate with the Earth, staying constantly aligned with one designated spot on the ground enabling the nanotube tether to stretch to space. The tether to space would conceivably be less than a foot wide.
Gloyd said that besides the obvious cost benefits of being able to shuttle masses of materials into space on an elevator, the project will mainly yield advances in solar and material technology that could benefit society in many ways.
Brandon Corner, a freshman general engineering major and intern for the project, said he feels fortunate to be able to participate so early.
?Not many underclassmen besides juniors and seniors get the opportunity to participate in a senior design project, so instead of just taking intro to engineering and not really having an idea of what I can do with engineering, I get to see hands on what engineering is really about. It?s a great thing for me to be a part of this group,? he said.
Gloyd said that the project has shown her that there are real world applications for the upper-level specialized classes.
Vaillant said that she is glad she is on the project, because it includes valuable experience in design, project management, teamwork and meeting deadlines. The fact that the outcome is based solely on the research and work of the eight team members really helps to prepare them for real world projects and jobs that await them after college.
The other people involved with the space elevator team are students David Gillespie, Ryan Steele, Chris Sturgill, Elliotte Want, Clay Myatt and associate engineering science and mechanics professor Jack Lesko, the senior project professor.
Vaillant said that the team is very thankful for Pat Artis, a Virginia Tech alumnus who operates an information technology company in Colorado called Performance Associates Inc., who has provided $15,000 in funding for the space elevator team.
?He has given us the opportunity to really achieve on this project,? she said.
Gloyd and Vaillant both said they were confident that they would be able to complete the requirements in the competition next year.
?We?re going to win,? Gloyd said.