The Microsoft-founder-funded SpaceShipOne is widely expected to win the Ansari X-Prize within the next 30 days or so. The X-Prize has clearly been a very worthwhile challenge but it has essentially stimulated a civilian repeat of where Nasa has gone before. More interesting from a long-term perspective is the space elevator concept. And, indeed, the Elevator 2010 competition. There are many challenges: it's always going to be tricky building a 22,236-mile-long structure stretching from the ground to geostationary orbit (or perhaps twice as far, to put the centre of gravity in orbit), particularly given that the equatorial locations needed for geosynchrony do tend to suffer from hurricanes. Still, you have to start somewhere, and in Elevator 2010's case it's with 200 feet of tape, up which competing devices must climb, taking their power from a bright halogen lamp shining from below - light beams being one practical way of transmitting power without the need for a 22,000-mile mains cable. Luckily, one breakthrough has handily happened just in time. Nature reports that boffins have worked out a new and efficient-sounding way to turn light into electrical power, using thousands of tiny carbon nanotubes. Which is all very neat, considering that the best prospective material for the cable also happens to be carbon nanotubes. The future would be a very dull place without the little things.
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