A Japanese Company Hopes To Build An Elevator Into Space By 2050

Published June 6, 2024

Japan's Obayashi Corporation is making progress on their plan to build a massive elevator with a 22,000-mile tether that could send humans to the International Space Station in just two-and-a-half hours.

Obayashi Corporation Space Elevator

Obayashi CorporationObayashi Corporation’s concept image for their planned space elevator.

One of Japan’s top construction companies, the Obayashi Corporation, announced recently that it has begun testing carbon nanotubes, which could, in theory, allow them to construct a massive elevator extending out into space.

This “space elevator” would propel humans out of the Earth’s atmosphere at record speed. Based on several scientists’ estimates, the concept could reduce travel time to Mars from six to eight months to as little as 40 days. But could such an ambitious project actually come to fruition? Obayashi Corporation certainly seems to think so.

How Obayashi Corporation Plans To Build A Space Elevator By 2050

First and foremost, what would this proposed space elevator even look like? According to concept images and plans outlined by Obayashi Corporation, the elevator would look something like a massive tube, tethering Earth to a geostationary satellite beyond the planet’s atmosphere. This massive carbon nanotube would be nearly 60,000 miles long and transport materials and people using wheeled lifts called “climbers.”

Obayashi Corporation said construction of the space elevator would be carried out by delivering materials via rockets at several stages throughout the process to build a spaceship at low Earth orbit (LEO). From there, the spaceship would use electric propulsion to move up as it circled the Earth until it reached geostationary Earth orbit (GEO), at which point it would start to orbit at the same rate as Earth’s rotation.

At a distance of roughly 22,000 miles from Earth, the spaceship would begin to deploy the carbon nanotube with a thruster attached to its tip. At the same time, the spaceship would once again move further from the Earth. Eight months later, Obayashi Corporation estimates, the carbon nanotube would reach Earth’s surface, and the spaceship would reach its final altitude of 60,000 miles, where it would serve as a counterweight for the tube. From there, a climber for construction would ascend the tube, reinforcing it with cables before joining the counterweight at the top.

Geostationary Orbit Station

Obayashi CorporationConcept art for the Geostationary Orbit Station.

Obayashi Corporation estimates that after being reinforced about 500 times, the tube would be able to support a 100-ton climber, which would then be used to transport materials to complete the GEO station.

Back home on Earth, the company plans to construct the Earth Port, a gateway to space with two sections, one on land at the equator and one at sea. Each of these sections would be connected by an undersea tunnel. From the Earth Port, climbers would ascend the carbon nanotube at a speed of roughly 93 miles per hour, reaching the height of the International Space Station in about two-and-a-half hours.

Space Elevator Construction

Obayashi CorporationAn outline of the various stages of development for the elevator.

Each launch, the company said, would likely cost a few thousand dollars. Compared to the amount of money it currently costs to go to space, though, that’s quite cheap — and if this method actually proves to be successful, it would also be much more sustainable, as there would be no fuel involved in the process. The entire thing would theoretically be powered by solar energy, with the GEO station serving as a massive solar panel.

Yoji Ishikawa, a member of the company’s future technology creation department, told Business Insider that while construction on the elevator is unlikely to start in 2025 as initially estimated when the company first announced their plans back in 2012, Obayashi Corporation is “engaged in research and development, rough design, partnership building, and promotion.”

Of course, not everyone shares Obayashi Corporation’s optimism when it comes to this project.

Is It Even Possible To Build An Elevator To Space?

“It’s been sort of a kooky idea,” Christian Johnson, who published a report on space elevators in 2023, told Business Insider. “That said, there are some people who are real scientists who are really on board with this and really want to make it happen.”

Johnson noted that there would certainly be some benefits to a construction like the one proposed by Obayashi Corporation. For one, there would be no risk of a rocket exploding, and the speed at which materials would be transported would cause fewer vibrations, which would be good for more sensitive equipment. It would also be significantly cheaper to transport materials than virtually every rocket-based system — by roughly $1,000 per pound.

Earth Port

Obayashi CorporationConcept artwork of the Earth Port.

That said, there are some clear obstacles. There is not enough steel on Earth to make such a massive structure, especially if it were to be strong enough to withstand the tension it would be under. This is likely why Obayashi Corporation is looking into carbon nanotubes, which are essentially rolled-up layers of graphite. Graphite is much lighter than steel and less likely to break under tension, but there is one major problem: no one has made a carbon nanotube longer than two feet.

Carbon nanotubes are certainly strong, but at just a billionth of a meter in diameter, they’re also incredibly small. The tether for the space elevator would need to be 22,000 miles long, which is quite substantial, and no carbon nanotube has come even remotely close to that length.

“But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” Johnson said.

There are a host of other issues as well, including possible human threats to the elevator, weather-related events that could damage it, and the sheer amount of money it would cost to build — an estimated $100 billion.

Still, Ishikawa and Obayashi Corporation remain optimistic about the project — and maybe one day humans really will be able to take an elevator into space.

After reading about the plans for Japan’s “space elevator,” look through our collection of stunning photographs from the James Webb Telescope. Or, see 29 awe-inspiring images from Mars.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Cite This Article
Harvey, Austin. "A Japanese Company Hopes To Build An Elevator Into Space By 2050." AllThatsInteresting.com, June 6, 2024, https://allthatsinteresting.com/obayashi-corporation-space-elevator. Accessed June 21, 2024.