Space Lace

I was somewhat groggily listening to NPR this morning, when I caught bits of a story about some sort of “space tether” that was analogous in form to “underwear lace like you would find in Victoria’s Secret”.

At this point in the morning, I hadn’t yet received adequate levels of caffeine, so I figured I’d go check out the story later on the internets.

New Scientist Space gives us the gist of the story. NASA is experimenting with technologies which will reduce the amount of fuel that rockets have to carry with them. A spacecraft requires a huge amount of thrust to escape the earth’s atmosphere, and traditionally, in order to generate that amount of thrust, it requires a huge amount of fuel. One way to reduce the amount of fuel that a rocket needs to carry is to have waystations in space that will provide additional thrust — and that’s what the space tethers are for.

Researchers believe that long tethers, rotating lengthwise, could one day catch satellites in space and fling them to higher orbits. This could allow rockets to use less fuel if they launched satellites to relatively low altitudes before having the tether take over, boosting the satellites into higher orbits – or out of Earth’s orbit altogether.

The tether works a little bit like a slingshot and a little bit like a jumprope. It’s basically a long piece of string, anchored at each end by a satellite, that spins around like a jumprope. In the middle will be a slingshot mitt that’s designed to catch an incoming rocket. The mitt catches the rocket, the tether swings around on its jumprope trajectory, the mitt releases the rocket and the rocket is flung into space.

The weave of the tether is what caught my attention in the first place. It sounds to me less like lace per se, and more like fishnet — it’s constructed with inbuilt redundancy so that it can withstand small tears without compromising the entire line.

The MAST [Multi-Application Survivable Tether] tether is expected to be more durable than those previous experiments, since it uses three, interwoven lines, each 0.5 mm wide, rather than just one. “It’s kind of like a long, thin net, so if you get a piece cut somewhere, there are other parallel lines that can take over the load.”

The technology is still in its infancy — there are prototype tethers, but no mitts. Tomorrow will see the launch of a new prototype system — a tether around 1km in length, with a “thermos sized” inspector robot (called “Inspector Gadget”) which will crawl along the length of the tether to check for damage. The New Scientist article (linked above) reports that the inspector robot should be visible with binoculars, if not with the naked eye. The experiment has a blog, so stay tuned for the best places to watch for robots crawling along lines of fishnet in the sky.

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