Skyhook (structure)

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For other uses, see Skyhook (disambiguation).
How a rotating and non-rotating skyhook would appear in orbit

A skyhook is a proposed momentum exchange tether that aims to reduce the cost of placing payloads into space.

An engineer speculated in 1994 that the skyhook could be cost competitive with what is realistically thought to be achievable using a space elevator,[1] but the skyhook is not competitive with other rotating tether concepts.[2] In addition, it has been suggested that the rotating skyhook is "not engineeringly feasible using presently available materials".[2][3][4][5][6] While no skyhook has yet been built, there have been a number of flight experiments exploring various aspects of the space tether concept in general.[7]

A skyhook differs from a geostationary orbit space elevator in that a skyhook would be much shorter and would not come in contact with the surface of the Earth. A skyhook would require a suborbital launch vehicle to reach its lower end, while a space elevator would not.


Different synchronous non-rotating orbiting skyhook concepts and versions have been proposed, starting with Isaacs in 1966,[8][9] Artsutanov in 1967,[10][11] Pearson[12] and Colombo in 1975,[13] Kalaghan in 1978,[14] and Braginski in 1985.[15] The version with best potential involve a much shorter tether in low Earth orbit which rotates in its orbital plane and whose ends brush the upper Earth atmosphere, with the rotational motion cancelling the orbital motion at ground level. These "rotating" skyhook versions were proposed by Moravec in 1976,[16][17] and Sarmont in 1994.[1][18]

When the Italian scientist Giuseppe Colombo proposed in the early 1970s the idea of using a tidally stabilized tether for downward-looking Earth observation satellites, NASA officially begun to assess in 1979 the possible scientific applications for long tethers in space and whether the development of a tethered system was justified.[19] This resulted in a Shuttle-based tether system: the TSS-1R mission, launched 22 February 1996 on STS-75 that focused in characterizing basic space tether behavior and space plasma physics.[19] The Italian satellite was deployed to a distance of 19.7 km (12.2 mi) from the Space Shuttle.[19]

Types of skyhooks[edit]


Non-rotating skyhook as proposed by E. Sarmont in 1990

A non-rotating skyhook is a vertically oriented, gravity-gradient-stabilized tether whose lower endpoint would not reach the surface of the planet it is orbiting. As a result, it would appear to be hanging from the sky, hence the name skyhook.

In 1990, E. Sarmont proposed using a non-rotating skyhook as part of a space transportation system. Sub-orbital launch vehicles would fly to the bottom end of the tether, and spacecraft bound for higher orbit or returning from higher orbit would use the upper end of the tether.[20] He expanded on the idea in a second paper published in 1994.[1] Other scientists and engineers have investigated and added to the concept.[21][22][23][24][25]

The non-rotating skyhook is not the same as a surface to geostationary orbit space elevator. The non-rotating skyhook is a much shorter version that would not touch the surface of the Earth and would be much lighter in mass. It would work by hanging a cable from a relatively low altitude orbit to just above the Earth's atmosphere. Since the lower end of the cable would be moving at less than orbital velocity for its altitude, a launch vehicle flying to the bottom of the skyhook would be able to carry a larger payload while being assisted into orbit by the device.[26][27] This type of skyhook would start out as short as 200 km and grow to over 4,000 km in length using a bootstrap method that would take advantage of the reduction in launch costs that come with increases in tether length. With a long enough cable, single-stage to skyhook flight with a reusable launch vehicle would become possible.[28]

In the case of the 200 km overall length, 150 km working length, non-rotating skyhook, the lower endpoint of the cable would be moving at 96.67% of orbital velocity for its altitude.[19] A longer cable with a greater mass would mean that the speed of an arriving spacecraft could be decreased, thus lowering costs. Once the working length of the lower half of the non-rotating skyhook reaches 1,047 km, the lower endpoint of the cable would be moving at 80% of orbital velocity for its altitude.[1]

The cost cannot be calculated until a new fiber that is at least 20 times stronger than anything currently in existence is developed.[3][4][5] A 2000 Boeing report concluded that "in general, the non-spinning tether skyhook concept does not look competitive with the rotating tether concepts."[2]


The rotating concept. If the orbital velocity and the tether rotation rate are synchronized, the tether tip moves in a cycloid curve. At the lowest point it is momentarily stationary with respect to the ground, where it can 'hook' a payload and swing it into orbit.

A rotating tether is a type of cable that would orbit the Earth with a tip speed equal to its orbital speed (around 7–8 km/s).[29][30] The tip would rotate down, moving in the direction of Earth's rotation. It would enter the atmosphere at low speed and pick up a payload from the ground or the atmosphere. It then carries it up into space.

However, a Boeing study in 2000 assessed that "Trying to lower the tether tip speed to 4.0 km/s (13 000 ft/s or Mach 13) would require a skyhook tether mass greater than 200 times the payload mass."[2] The Boeing team stated that "If the mass of the tether alone started to exceed 200 times the mass of the payload, then that was an indication the particular scenario being considered was not engineeringly feasible using presently available materials".[2] As of 2013, a tether material with the required strength has not been developed.[3][4][5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Sarmont, E. (October 1994). "How an Earth Orbiting Tether Makes Possible an Affordable Earth-Moon Space Transportation System". SAE 942120. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Bogar, Thomas J.; Bangham, Michal E.; Forward, Robert L.; Lewis, Mark J. (7 January 2000). "Hypersonic Airplane Space Tether Orbital Launch System" (PDF). Research Grant No. 07600-018l Phase I Final Report. NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts. Retrieved 2014-03-20. 
  3. ^ a b c Dvorsky, G. (13 February 2013). "Why we'll probably never build a space elevator". 
  4. ^ a b c Feltman, R. (7 March 2013). "Why Don't We Have Space Elevators?". Popular Mechanics. 
  5. ^ a b c Scharr, Jillian (29 May 2013). "Space Elevators On Hold At Least Until Stronger Materials Are Available, Experts Say". Huffington Post. 
  6. ^ Templeton, Graham (6 March 2014). "60,000 miles up: Space elevator could be built by 2035, says new study". Extreme Tech. Retrieved 2014-04-19. 
  7. ^ Chen, Yi; Huang, Rui; Ren, Xianlin; He, Liping; He, Ye (2013). "History of the Tether Concept and Tether Missions: A Review". ISRN Astronomy and Astrophysics 2013. doi:10.1155/2013/502973. Retrieved 2014-03-07. 
  8. ^ Isaacs, J. D.; Vine, A. C.; Bradner, H; Bachus, G. E. (1966). "Satellite elongation into a true "sky-hook"". Science 151 (3711): 682–3. doi:10.1126/science.151.3711.682. PMID 17813792. 
  9. ^ See also: letter in Science 152:800, May 6, 1966.
  10. ^ Artsutanov, Y. V Kosmos na Elektrovoze (Into Space by Funicular Railway). Komsomolskaya Pravda (Young Communist Pravda), July 31, 1960. Contents described in Lvov, Science 158:946, November 17, 1967.
  11. ^ Arsutanov, Y. V Kosmos Bez Raket (Into Space Without Rockets). Znanije-Sile (Knowledge is Power) 1969(7):25, July, 1969.
  12. ^ Pearson, J. The Orbital Tower: A Spacecraft Launcher Using the Earth's Rotational Energy. Acta Astronautica 2:785-799, September/October, 1975.
  13. ^ Colombo, G., Gaposchkin, E. M., Grossi, M. D., and Weiffenbach, G. C., "The 'Skyhook': A Shuttle-Borne Tool for Low Orbital Altitude Research," Meccanica, Vol. 10, No. 1, Mar. 1975.
  14. ^ Kalaghan, P., Arnold, D. A. , Colombo, G., Grossi, M., Kirschner, L. R., and Orringer, O., "Study of the Dynamics of a Tethered Satellite System (Skyhook)," NASA Contract NAS8-32199, SAO Final Report, Mar. 1978.
  15. ^ V.B. Braginski and K.S. Thorne, "Skyhook Gravitational Wave Detector," Moscow State University, Moscow, USSR, and Caltech, 1985.
  16. ^ Moravec, Hans (1976). "Skyhook proposal". 
  17. ^ Moravec. H. P. "A Non-Synchronous Orbital Skyhook". Journal of the Astronautical Sciences, 25:307-322. October-December, 1977. Presented at 23rd AIAA Meeting, The Industrialization of Space, San Francisco, CA,. October 18-20, 1977.
  18. ^ Moravec, Hans (1981). "Skyhook proposal". 
  19. ^ a b c d Cosmo, M.; Lorenzini, E. (December 1997). Tethers in Space Handbook (PDF) (Third ed.). Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. 
  20. ^ Sarmont, E. (26 May 1990). "An Orbiting Skyhook: Affordable Access to Space". International Space Development Conference (Anaheim California). 
  21. ^ Marshall, L.; Ladner, D.; McCandless, B. (2002). "The Bridge to Space: Elevator Sizing & Performance Analysis CP608". Space Technology and Applications International Forum. 
  22. ^ Cartmell, M. P.; McKenzie, D. J. (2008). "A review of space tether research". Progress in Aerospace Sciences 44 (1): 1–21. 
  23. ^ Colombo, G.; Gaposchkin, E. M.; Grossi, M. D.; Weiffenbach, G. C. (1975). "The sky-hook: a shuttle-borne tool for low-orbital-altitude research". Meccanica 10 (1): 3–20. 
  24. ^ Johnson, L.; Gilchrist, B.; Estes, R. D.; Lorenzini, E. (1999). "Overview of future NASA tether applications". Advances in Space Research 24 (8): 1055–1063. 
  25. ^ Levin, E. M. (2007), Dynamic Analysis of Space Tether Missions, Washington, DC: American Astronautical Society 
  26. ^ Wilson, N. (August 1998). "Space Elevators, Space Hotels and Space Tourism". 
  27. ^ Sarmont, E. "Affordable to the Individual Spaceflight". Archived from the original on 2007-02-13. 
  28. ^ Smitherman, D. V. "Space Elevators, An Advanced Earth-Space Infrastructure for the New Millennium". NASA/CP-2000-210429. Archived from the original on 2007-02-21. 
  29. ^ Isaacs, J. D.; Vine, A. C.; Bradner, H.; Bachus, G. E. (1966). "Satellite elongation into a true "sky-hook"". Science 151 (3711): 682–683. 
  30. ^ Chen, Yi; Huang, Rui; Ren, Xianlin; He, Liping; He, Ye (2013). "History of the Tether Concept and Tether Missions: A Review". ISRN Astronomy and Astrophysics 2013. doi:10.1155/2013/502973. 502973.