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Japan Launches Space Elevator Prototype Into Orbit

It's the stuff of fantasy. You step in an elevator and press a button emblazoned with an upward arrow. As the doors close, you hear a disembodied voice soothingly waft through the confines.

"Going up. Wa-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-y up."

How high? Well, in this case, the sky is no longer the limit, if a Japanese experiment manifests itself into reality, however distant it may be now. The notion of an elevator that can take you into outer space is currently being tested after Japanese engineers managed to get a scaled-down prototype into space on Saturday, destined for the International Space Station.

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That day, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched a booster carrying two satellites, each slightly larger than a PEZ dispenser and connected with a 33-foot cable, from Tanegashimi. The satellites, one of them containing a robotically-controlled elevator, made up the latest stage in a research project called STARS-Me  (Space Tethered Autonomous Robotic Satellite – Mini elevator).

Japan had rocketed three previous STARS-Me prototypes, but this endeavor will actually test how the mini-elevator's motor will work with a cable in a zero-gravity environment. If the results are encouraging, it may further spur construction firm Obayashi to get the real thing operational by 2050. While in development, additional prototypes could be tested for relatively smaller tasks like refueling spacecraft or moving payloads.

An elevator into outer space might be far-fetched, but from an economic standpoint, it does make sense as a bona fide lift of this sort will certainly cut down on costs of building and launching rockets. There's also an environmental bonus as an elevator certainly eliminates a reliance on fossil fuel pollutants for propulsion as well as orbiting space junk consisting of abandoned boosters and other craft debris.

The idea of this mode of transportation is nothing new. Aeronautical engineer Jerome Pearson seriously toyed with the concept in the 1970s, which impressed sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke to include it in his book The Fountains of Paradise. Russian schoolteacher Konstantin Tsiolkovski also imagined a similar scenario when dreaming of the possibility of a space tower with a railway. And in 2003, scientist Bradley Edwards received NASA funding to come up with a practical design for an elevator, that was abandoned due to potential interference with orbiting satellites.

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