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'Space' climber — almost

FARMINGTON — A futuristic "climber" built by a university team from Saskatchewan, Canada, came within seven seconds of winning a $500,000 prize in a space-elevator competition.

"We're pretty thrilled here," said Ben Sheles, CEO of the nonprofit Spaceward Foundation of Mountain View, Calif., sponsor of the Spaceward Games 2007 competition. He wished the Canadian team could have won, but it was a great attempt, he said.

"This is a breakthrough. Nobody in the history of NASA or whatever ever transferred that much power using laser," he said. NASA has been encouraging the competition.

"They did it under field conditions, time pressure, (with a) moving target." The target, weighing about 45 pounds, climbed more than 300 feet up a "ribbon" suspended from a crane. He estimated that the laser mounted on top of a container trailer transferred "400 watts over a distance of 100 meters" (about 325 feet) onto the target.

"This is a lot more than we expected."

Because the prize went unclaimed for a second year, the money will be applied to next year's competition. In 2008, a winning team could walk away with $900,000 cash.

The games, staged at the Davis County Events Center, were designed to test technology that might be used someday to "beam" material into orbit. The theory is that a satellite in stationary orbit, hovering over a spot on Earth, could be tethered to the ground by a cable. Microwaves, solar rays or lasers would be focused on a platform traveling to the satellite.

The platform's receivers would convert the beam into mechanical power. Using that energy, the platform and its cargo would zip upward on the cable. This technology is supposed to cost so little that the "space elevator" would be an inexpensive way to get material into orbit.

In the tests, a crane stretched 320 feet above the ground, securing the top of a ribbon, which was about four inches wide. The ribbon's other end was anchored to the ground. The climbers ascended the ribbon.

The nonprofit Spaceward Corp. is funding the yearly games, which were located in Utah for the first time. To win, a climber of under 60 pounds had to reach the top of the ribbon at a speed of about 6.5 feet a second, or around 50 seconds. It then had to return to the ground in a controlled descent.

The nearly winning climber was fielded by the University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team. The group goes by USST, with the "D" left out because, one team member said, "it sounds a little better." Some members are graduates while others are attending the university.

The laser used to power the device produces 9 kilowatts, said Jesse Hobbs, a third-year mechanical engineering student at Saskatchewan. The climber cost "a lot" and was built with help from "some generous sponsors."

If a contractor, instead of students, had to build the climber, the platform would have cost $50,000, said a team member. Driving the laser was a large generator parked next to the trailer.

Eight teams from the United States and Canada arrived in Farmington to compete. Four qualified to run for the prize. One of these was a high school team from San Jose, Calif., the Technology Typhoons. Its solar-powered climber nearly made it to the top, but far too slowly.

A team from Kansas City, the K.C. Space Pirates, saw its lightweight platform get beat up badly in an attempt Sunday. Solar panels broke loose in the wind and sailed to the ground. It still reached the top, but a little too slowly.

The climber was repaired by the time the team made two more attempts the next day.

And on the group's final try, the device made it to the top but too slowly: about one minute, 25 seconds instead of the 50 seconds needed to win.

Term captain Brian Turner was dejected. "I'm just hugely, hugely disappointed," he said as he walked off the field.

Asked if the group would try again in the 2008 contest, Turner said, "I'm out of money."

That left one contender: the climber built by USST. And it came close, but no half-million.

"It's been a pretty impressive activity, for people to get together and try and accomplish a task with teamwork and with the mind of advancing technology," said John Sohl, a physics professor from Weber State University in Ogden.

He was so fascinated by the event, he said, that "I was supposed to be out of here about five hours ago and I'm still here."

Sheles said he was impressed by the complexity of the USST device.

"This system will do a lot better next year," he said. "I'm disappointed we didn't have the speed; I'm very happy with the level of technology demonstrated. ... This one is very, very impressive."


E-mail: bau@desnews.com