Researchers compete to develop space exploration tools for NASA

High-tech teams gathered this weekend to put far-out concepts for reaching space to the test.

The competition at the NASA Ames Research Center invited teams to take their best shot at creating the world's first "space elevator" _ originally conceived by Arthur C. Clarke in his 1978 novel, "The Fountains of Paradise."

The idea is to develop a tough, lightweight rope, or "tether," that would stretch from the Earth to a satellite more than 62,000 miles (99,750 kilometers) in space, then send a robotic "climber," powered by light beams and capable of carrying humans and cargo, up the tether.

It's a goal NASA hopes to accomplish by 2020. This weekend, though, the goals were slightly more modest.

Ten teams, vying for $100,000 (Ђ83,250) in prizes, were competing in two competitions _ one, to test the strongest tether; the other, to test the best light-powered robot for climbing up a 200-foot (60-meter) tether.

"This is our first time out," said Marc Schwager, spokesman for the Spaceward Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to space science and technology education that teamed up with NASA to host the challenge. "This is much more like Kitty Hawk than Kennedy."

This weekend's competition was the first in a series of "Centennial Challenges" hosted by NASA to encourage aerospace engineers around the nation to help fill new space needs with new technologies.

During Saturday's first round of competition, only four out of seven teams competed in the climbing challenge, and only one _ a team from the University of British Columbia _ successfully sent a robot up the tether, Schwager said.

All seven teams would have another opportunity to test their robots Sunday, with many adjustments likely to be made overnight. "Everyone's got a lot of work to do," Schwager said.

And even if teams pull off a successful climb, their robots must travel at a minimum speed of one meter per second to be eligible for the $50,000 (Ђ41,625) grand prize, he added. If not, the prize money rolls over to next year's competition.

Four teams were expected to compete in the strongest tether challenge late Saturday, using a material called carbon nanotube that was first developed in Japan in 1990.

"These are insanely strong materials. They're strong enough so that a nanotube the size of a human hair could pick up a human," Schwager said, AP reported. V.A.

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