To 500 Feet…And Beyond!

Can high wi-fi boost space elevator?
Balloon test could open path for Internet access in remote areas

liftportretro.jpg

Alan Boyle on MSNBC.com:

A company that someday hopes to build the first space elevator says it is testing a system that could take it to a lower-altitude goal along the way: balloon-based wireless data services.

The LiftPort Group, based in Bremerton, Wash., is in the midst of a two-month test to see if a balloon-based platform, moored to the ground, can serve as a reliable relay for Internet traffic in remote areas — serving “the guys that everybody else forgot,” said the company’s founder and president, Michael Laine.

The idea is that this test will not only help pave the way to space elevators, but it will be a viable and money-making technology along the way. That’s the way to go. Even if the space elevator chase ends up going in a different direction, there is still the potential for gains in other areas.

In the shorter term, LiftPort has been casting around for ways to apply the technological building blocks of the space elevator scheme to more grounded pursuits. Laine said his company already has a client for the technology: Lightspeed Broadband, a wireless Internet access provider based in Port Angeles, Wash.

“These guys are actually going to pay for this system now, under development,” Laine said.

Lightspeed’s president, Jamie Aggen, told MSNBC.com that his fledgling company hoped to use balloon-lofted signal relays to weave meshes of wireless Internet and voice-over-Internet services — initially across the Kitsap Peninsula, and eventually in other areas as well. Aggen said the system also could be used to facilitate “quick, early response to disaster areas,” with last year’s Hurricane Katrina devastation serving as a prime example…

LiftPort’s concept is relatively low-tech and low-altitude, essentially relying on clusters of weather balloons held in place by a network of tethers. For this summer’s test, the balloons are floating above a privately owned apple orchard, Laine said. Once the balloons rise to the 500-foot level, “we’re expecting the FAA to get calls about UFOs,” he said.

“If it works till the end of September … we’re going to ask for an extension” from the FAA, he said.

The fact that these “towers” will move about with the wind will probably be cause for concern with the FAA and military aviation organizations. Let’s hope that things can be worked out. In any event, important lessons are sure to be learned.

Comments

  1. I prefer companies that explore feasible ideas for getting to orbit. This bunch is like a permanent Trekkie convention.

  2. Dfens: Though I’ve long been a fan of the beanstalk/space elevator concept (we’re talking twenty years here), I’m quite skeptical that we’re really anywhere as close as the last couple of years’ worth of news reports claim. Still, I’m glad to see the research and even gladder that it’s a private company. I don’t mind tossing them a few public bucks to work on it. Even if it never works, there’s likely to be some good side benefits to the research. The fact that they’re trying to turn their research into a money-making project is icing.

  3. How much trouble they have with the FAA will depend entirely on where they’re located. The balloons really are no different than stationary towers and will certainly have the strobe flashers and possibly transponders too. Pilots will see NOTAMS about them, just as they would for any new tower, and with the clearance rules there should be no trouble with approvals. Any accidents would be the pilot’s fault. All this assumes that they’re not near any specific sensitive area. In that case, all bets are off.

  4. Back in the 80’s the top space R&D guys had a concept for a 2 stage to orbit system featuring an air breathing first stage that would fly to 100,000 ft and drop a booster/payload rocket that would go to low Earth orbit. Once the rocket was dropped, the 1st stage would fly back, refuel and pick up a new 2nd stage. That idea was feasible over twenty years ago and a hell of a lot cheaper than anything anyone has done since. That company has a patent on the idea, although I believe the patent specifies the release speed to be about Mach 3. There is a cusp in the cost curve at Mach 2 because of the lower cost materials that can be used to build the first stage. I’ll get behind the crazy ideas once the good ones that have been kicking around for a quarter century are used up. It’s all part of being a crusty old guy, I guess.

  5. dfens I prefer companies that explore feasible ideas for getting to orbit. This bunch is like a permanent Trekkie convention. Non-sequiter – is it the idea you object to or the way we style ourselves? Both? If the former – even we’re not sure, yet, that a space elevator is an option competitive with conventional solutions. We’re not looking for funds to build, but to explore the idea and see if it’s reasonable for a private company to build. If the latter, I assume it’s the blogging and SF con attendance? Perhaps the attitude we display? Public support is vital – this is one way of getting it, by being open and honest and doing stuff like that. I think it’s an interesting accident that the majority of the engineering staff happen to be SF readers, but .. so were the guys who built Apollo. murdoc I’m quite skeptical that we’re really anywhere as close as the last couple of years’ worth of news reports claim Depends on which news reports you read. Boyle’s stuff is pretty spot-on, but he’s a pro. Most of the reports are written by anonymous AP writers going by other news reports or from skimming our infrequent press releases. Generally, no, we’re not as close as you’d think from the press. dfens I’ll get behind the crazy ideas once the good ones that have been kicking around for a quarter century are used up. It’s all part of being a crusty old guy, I guess. Fine – we need and encourage critics. Note however that there are reasons why the old ideas remain ideas and not working systems. Too expensive, too impractical, not the right time, etc. We think this could be a reasonable alternative. It is an idea worth exploring. If it doesn’t work, then we’ll know and can move on. If it does then we’ve got inexpensive access to space. Which is the real prize, and why I work there. I don’t care if CATS comes from laser launch, mass-produced Virgin Galactic SpaceShip2s or fricking magical swans. I do feel that the species needs a way to get to space that doesn’t cost an arm and both legs – this is my contribution to that effort. But the goal is, in the end, access to space.

  6. Brian: Thanks for stopping by! Yes, I meant general media hype over the space elevator, not Boyle’s coverage. And though I’m skeptical, there’s little I’d like more than to be proven wrong…

  7. You know, when I design something, usually I do some quick calculations to see if I’m in the ballpark. If I’m not, I move on to the next idea. I do not spend millions beating my head on the impossible. If it’s a good idea that needs a technological jump before it’s feasible, then I wait for that technology to improve and revist my idea. That’s the difference between science fiction and actual engineering. As for the 2 stage to orbit vehicle, which part is too expensive or impractical? Is it the Mach 2 aircraft? I believe we had those in the ’50s and some rather large vehicles were recently retired from commercial operation. I’m guessing it’s not the rocket.

  8. I’ve always been the fan of the concept of airlifting a rocket to high altitude/high speed and releasing it. I too can’t see why it’s such a massive problem. Maybe a good design would be an aircraft like the Concorde except with a tunnel down the middle. The cockpit would be on a spike sticking out the left or right side of the tunnel at the front. Rocket would be slung under the tunnel and would form the nose/body of the aircraft (minus a structural spine/fuel storage area across the top). To save fuel it would do a subsonic takeoff from a very long runway, climb slowly up to 50kft or so, then light the burners and accelerate to Mach 2 in a gentle climb. Then it would pull up and release the rocket as it goes over the top, which would light its engine after separation (for safety), while the aircraft finishes the loop, then throttles back and glides down for a powered landing. The rockets that could be launched in that way couldn’t be as large as ground-launched rockets, and probably would have to have smaller payloads, but I suspect for those size payloads it could be made to be a fairly cheap and reliable launch system. I too can’t see what’s so un-feasable about it. Compared to programs like the Space Shuttle, Saturn V and Concorde it shouldn’t be unattainable.

  9. If it’s a good idea that needs a technological jump before it’s feasible, then I wait for that technology to improve and revist my idea. That’s the difference between science fiction and actual engineering. Point taken. Brief nutshell, here is what we’re doing; We think the only thing that requires a technological jump is the ribbon material. People are working on that, but not for space elevator applications. Practical CNT that an Edwards SE would require will be usefull in hundreds of applications – enough so that there is a huge incentive to develop it. We might hope it would be sooner than later. Anything can happen to delay this option, so we accept that potential roadblock and move on. We can’t enter that arena and build an R+D effort to catch up with the established labs – no problem. We’re not interested in the material so much as using it. What we’re doing is working on the other bits that will be required for a working space elevator. The lifters, for one, and an early result is the subject of this blog post. Politics and legal issues for another – and those two are essential to master for any project. You’re not wrong – but if things do work out then when the CNT does become available a small group of people will be – with some care and luck – in the right position to take advantage of the situation. It may _not_ happen – the odds are long. But it just might.

  10. I wish you luck. It’s definately a good idea – once the technology is there. The Saturn V, for example, used half it’s fuel/oxidizer load getting to Mach 2. All rockets swim though a sea of oxidizer to get to orbit. Rocket engines are vastly inefficient at low speeds even if they weren’t penalized by having to carry their own oxidizer. At slow speeds, the most efficient lift is generated by moving a large reaction mass a little, not by moving a small reaction mass a lot as a rocket does. That’s why helicopters have big rotors. That’s why Lockheed’s JSF contender won over Boeing’s. Wings do the same thing as a large rotor, but require a runway.

  11. I’ve always been a big fan of the space elevator idea. Why go through the inefficiency of boosting a rocket-propelled vehicle to escape velocity when you could winch the payload up to orbit with a nuclear powered elevator? Obviously the big tech hurdle is the strength of the ribbon or cable. The rest is a matter of tough engineering. The largest risk is a failure of the cable. Aircraft collisions with the cables and terrorist attacks on the base are other possibilities. A space plane using current technology – jets, rockets, and/or ramjets – will still be far less efficient and have all the inherit risks of re-entry. A new and slightly improved space shuttle seems like a small step. To make an efficient and safe space plane would take a bigger leap of technology than the elevator – nuclear propulsion for instance.

  12. Me, I vote for fricking magical swans. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned – at least here – is that this isn’t an either-or proposition. Whether it is a two stage to orbit (Dfens’ quarter century old idea, or Rutan’s next project, take your pick) a big dumb rocket, Orion nuclear pulse or indeed fricking magical swans, cheap access to space is a *prerequisite* for Brian’s magical beanstalk. No matter how stupendously advanced the eventual material, no one has yet (that I’m aware of) come with an idea for a self-deploying beanstalk. We will have to get into space to build it. And that means getting beyond our primitive space technology. Likely, there will be a great need for testing of the beanstalk concept elsewhere before anyone allows one to be built here on earth. Tethers, rotovators, maybe a lunar beanstalk would likely be necessary (for legal/ safety/ bureaucratic/ product liability reasons. People would want to see that a beanstalk works, and continues to work for a significant period of time before allowing a 100000km carbon nanotube whip to be placed over their heads. For those reasons, cheap space access is even more necessary for a beanstalk. A beanstalk will be a like a railroad – people will have had to already gone ahead and prepared the way before it can be built. But once built, it will make going to space infinitely cheaper. First though, we’ve got to make it at least reasonably cheap. All that aside, I am all for Brian and his comrades spending as much money as they can get their grubby hands on to do the research needed so that when the time comes we will have that beanstalk.

  13. Replying to a nearly month-old post is pretty sad and won’t be read. Nevertheless my magic recovery tool for firefox crashes brought this up so here I go. And that means getting beyond our primitive space technology. Maybe not. In terms of material needed we can – we think – get the job done with six to eight Delta IV launches, plus on-orbit assembly. The last is tricky – it’s not like anyone has done this before … unless you count ISS and MIR. We’ll need a place for the assemblers to work and live. Again, it’s a new application of somewhat established concepts. But it’s been done before. This is not to poo-poo the difficulty involved, merely to note that it’s possible with technology we have now. People would want to see that a beanstalk works, and continues to work for a significant period of time before allowing a 100000km carbon nanotube whip to be placed over their heads Wrong imagery. Any forces that would impart enough energy to play crack-the-whip will shred the material. The stuff is going to be strong, but that level of strong it ain’t. A break? Stuff that is below the break will come down. Stuff above goes up and might be controllable in it’s altitude by moving the cars up and down. The stuff coming down? It’s light – kg’s per kilometer. It’s messy and there are (maybe) some long-term implications if we don’t police up the stuff. And if the break is way up there and we have thousands of kilometers coming down? The bits that survive the shock of the breakup will burn on re-entry. Which is not to make light of any of this – we’ve got studying to do before we can say with assurance ‘yes we can do this’ but some basic physics and engineering dictate that a whip hovering over our heads it’s not going to be. More seriously and of longer-term impact – we’ve got to live here too. We’re working hard not to build something that could wrack the planet. Many eye-balls help – and I hope you and other bloggers like you will keep an eye on us and keep us honest. Enron I don’t want to be.