London, September 22 : Scientists in Japan are working towards turning the seemingly fictional idea of the world's first space elevator, into reality.
According to a report in The Times, for chemists, physicists, material scientists, astronauts and dreamers across the globe, the space elevator represents the most tantalising of concepts: cables stronger and lighter than any fibre yet woven, tethered to the ground and disappearing beyond the atmosphere to a satellite docking station in geosynchronous orbit above Earth.
Up and down the 22,000 mile-long (36,000km) cables - or flat ribbons - will run the elevator carriages, themselves requiring huge breakthroughs in engineering to which the biggest Japanese companies and universities have turned their collective attention.
The scientists behind the idea told The Times that in the carriages, could be any number of cargoes.
A space elevator could carry people, huge solar-powered generators or even casks of radioactive waste.
The point is that breaking free of Earth's gravity will no longer require so much energy - perhaps 100 times less than launching the space shuttle.
"Just like traveling abroad, anyone will be able to ride the elevator into space," said Shuichi Ono, chairman of the Japan Space Elevator Association.
The vision has inspired scientists around the world and government organisations including NASA.
Several competing space elevator projects are gathering pace as various groups vie to build practical carriages, tethers and the hundreds of other parts required to carry out the plan.
There are prizes offered by space elevator-related scientific organisations for breakthroughs and competitions for the best and fastest design of carriage.
The idea of the space elevator does not mess with the laws of science; it just presents a series of very, very complex engineering problems.
Japan is increasingly confident that its sprawling academic and industrial base can solve those issues, and has even put the astonishingly low price tag of a trillion yen (5 billion pounds) on building the elevator.
To extend the elevator to a stationary satellite from the Earth's surface would require twice that length of cable to reach a counterweight, ensuring that the cable maintains its tension.
The cable must be exceptionally light, staggeringly strong and able to withstand all projectiles thrown at it inside and outside the atmosphere.
The answer, according to the groups working on designs, will lie in carbon nanotubes - microscopic particles that can be formed into fibres and whose mass production is now a focus of Japan's big textile companies.
According to Yoshio Aoki, a professor of precision machinery engineering at Nihon University, the cable would need to be about four times stronger than what is currently the strongest carbon nanotube fibre, or about 180 times stronger than steel.