Typically getting to space involves riding on top of a huge pillar of fire that overpowers the relatively firm grip Earth's gravity has on all of us. It's a scary and dangerous system, but there are other, less explosive ideas out there for how me might get to orbit one day and one is about to take a significant step towards becoming reality. 

The concept is a space elevator, which is exactly what it sounds like: a heavy-duty lift that boldly goes where no elevator has gone before.

The idea might sound a little outlandish at first, but it's the subject of very serious research by scientists and engineers around the world; there's even an annual conference in Seattle dedicated to advancing space elevator tech.

A fair amount of work on space elevators is centered in Japan, where construction firm Obayashi has set a goal of opening an elevator to space for tourists by 2050.

The company is working with Shizuoka University to get the plan off the ground and on Sunday arguably the world's first space elevator was sent to the International Space Station aboard a Japanese Rocket.

Thing is, it's a very tiny elevator.

 The university's Space Tethered Autonomous Robotic Satellite (STARS) project has already tested a miniature tether in space and now the next step is to send a miniature elevator to orbit to gather data on how an elevator might move under microgravity conditions.

STARS-ME (mini-elevator) is made up of two cubesats connected by a rigid tether 14 meters long. In orbit, the two linked satellites will be deployed and a Bluetooth-equipped climber will traverse the tether while also being in communication with one of the cubesats, both of which are in contact with the ground.

"It's going to be the world's first experiment to test elevator movement in space," a university spokesman told the Japan Times Tuesday.

It's a very small step towards perhaps one day simply stepping in a capsule and press a button marked "LEO" to be transported to low earth orbit. But if it works out, the 14 meters between two small satellites will be thought of as a laughably small distance when we're traveling for days or even weeks up to 96,000 kilometers in altitude.

That's roughly one quarter of the distance to the moon, which is how high Obayashi hopes its elevator will travel one day. 

Hopefully it never gets stuck between floors.

Published on: Sep 26, 2018