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Image: Climber
Marc Schwager  /  Spaceward Foundation
A robot climber makes its way up a thin tether suspended from a crane during Sunday's Beam Power Challenge at the NASA-backed Space Elevator Games in Mountain View, Calif.
updated 10/24/2005 1:06:52 AM ET 2005-10-24T05:06:52

A competition to develop space exploration tools for NASA produced no grand prize winners on Sunday, but officials said the event successfully sparked interest in aerospace technology.

The two-day event at the NASA Ames Research Center drew 10 teams of college students, hobbyists and entrepreneurs trying to build components for the world's first "space elevator."

The elevator idea, originally conceived by Arthur C. Clarke in his 1978 novel, "The Fountains of Paradise," relies on a tough, lightweight tether stretching more than 62,000 miles from Earth to carry humans and cargo into space with light-powered robotic "climbers."

Seven teams competed Sunday in the final round of the climbing competition, attempting to use light sources, including industrial-strength searchlights and magnifying glasses, to propel their robots up a 200-foot (60-meter) tether.

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None of the teams pulled off a winning climb, which had to travel at a minimum speed of 1 meter per second, although two Canadian teams — from the University of Saskatchewan and the University of British Columbia — managed to get their robots partially up the tether.

There also were no winners among the four teams entered in the strongest tether category Saturday. None succeeded in creating one lightweight or tough enough to outdo the "house" entry supplied by NASA, which used technology currently available.

Brant Sponberg, program manager for the "Centennial Challenges" hosted by NASA to encourage engineers to come up with new space technology, said the lack of grand prize winners was not a major disappointment. The $100,000 in prizes will be added to the jackpot for next year's contest.

"NASA has no plans to develop a space elevator any time soon, but the component technologies have a lot of different applications," Sponberg said. "High-strength materials that are less weight are great for rockets, it's great for airplanes, it's great for spacecraft."

Marc Schwager, spokesman for the Spaceward Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to space science and technology education that teamed up with NASA to host the contest, said participants already were excited to try again next year.

"There was a tremendous amount of learning that went on and a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. While the money was out there, everybody was out here because they were really committed to the idea" of creating a space elevator someday, Schwager said.

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