Friday, June 9, 2017

Zylon Mars Elevator

Mars Elevator With Conventional Materials

Mars spins nearly the same rate as earth (about a 24.62 hour day). Mars has about 1/9 earth's mass. At 17,000 kilometers, altitude of Mars synchronous orbit is less than half the altitude of geosynchronous orbit (about 36,000 kilometers).

These considerations have led some Mars enthusiasts to claim a Mars elevator made of conventional materials is possible. No bucky tubes or other science fiction material is needed, Kevlar will do. Is this true? I will take a look using Chris Wolfe's spreadsheet.

Safety Factor

In earlier blog posts using Wolfe's spreadsheet I used a safety factor of 1, a razor thin margin. The slightest scrape or nick will make the tether break. This is like drawing a pentagram to summon the demon Murphy's Law. No sensible entity would risk expensive payloads on such a narrow margin. Much less human lives. I hope to revise my earlier blog posts to include more sensible safety margins.

In later blog posts I looked at scenarios using a safety factor of 3. With this margin a portion of tether can lose up to 2/3 of it's mass without breaking.

In this post I'll use tables looking at a range of safety factors.  With a safety factor of 2, I cut tensile strength in half. A safety factor of 3 cuts tensile strength to a third. Which is a lot like cutting exhaust velocity in the rocket equation. Increasing an exponent can make tether thickness sky rocket.

Mars Equator to Mars Synchronous Orbit

This is the lower part of a Mars elevator. It exerts downward newtons that need to be balanced with upward newtons from elevator mass above Mars synchronous orbit.

Tether to
 Mass Ratio 

Payload is mass of elevator car as well as elevator car's contents. The elevator car will need to include motors and power source.

Mars Synchronous to Sub Deimos Elevator Top

Elevator top is set 50 kilometers below Deimos' periapsis. This is to avoid collision. The counterweight and tether above Mars synchronous orbit must counterbalance the downward force of the lower elevator.

Tether to
 Mass Ratio 
to Payload
 Mass Ratio 

The Whole Shebang

Safety Factor 1

Assuming lifting a 10 tonne elevator car and contents from Mars' surface and given a safety factor of 1, we'd need 10 * (38 + 154) tonnes of tether material. That'd be 1,920 tonnes of Zylon. Perhaps worthwhile if the elevator had a vigorous through put. I think these are the numbers Mars enthusiasts are talking about when they talk about Mars beanstalks made of Kevlar.

Also needed would be a 12,000 tonne counterweight. That's about thirty times the mass of the I.S.S.. This to lift a 10 tonne elevator car from Mars' surface? The need for a stud hoss counterweight sinks the argument for a Mars elevator, in my opinion.

Safety Factor 2

10 * (162 + 955) = 11170. About 11 thousand tonnes of Zylon to lift a 10 tonne elevator car and contents.

We'd need a nearly 150,000 tonne counterweight.

I think it's pretty obvious a Zylon Mars elevator with a safety factor of two isn't worthwhile. I'm not going to bother looking at a safety factor of 3.


The elevator top is moving at about 1.7 km/s. It needs another 1.6 km/s to achieve Trans Earth Insertion (TEI). From the surface of Mars it takes about 6 km/s for TEI. So the elevator cuts saves about 4.4 km/s off of trips to earth.


Given a sensible safety factor, a Zylon tether would need to be much more massive than the payload. The counterweight mass would dwarf the payload mass.

Mars neighbors the main asteroid belt. Some rocks from the belt make their way to Mars neighborhood. Collision with asteroidal debris could cut the tether. Given this elevator's 20,000 km length and healthy taper ratio, there is a large cross sectional area. This increases likelihood of an impact.

Also there is a chunk of Debris named Phobos which crosses the elevator's path every 10 hours or so.

Comparison to Phobos Elevator

A Phobos elevator dropping to Mars' upper atmosphere and extending to Trans Ceres insertion is about 13,700 km. This about 6,000 km shorter than the Mars elevator described above. It also has a smaller taper ratio. This makes for a smaller cross sectional area to intercept debris. Being anchored at Phobos, this elevator won't collide with Phobos. The top is well below Deimos. orbit.

This tether can provide Trans Ceres Insertion as well as Trans Earth Insertion.

It takes about a .6 km/s suborbital hop for a Mars ascent vehicle to rendezvous with this tether foot.

Using a safety factor of 1, the upper Phobos tether has a 3.21 payload to mass ratio. The lower Phobos tether has a tether to payload mass ratio of about 16.1. So from top to bottom, about twenty times the payload mass is needed in Zylon.

The Phobos takes about 1/10 of the Zylon mass for a mars elevator with a safety factor of one.

A sub Deimos Mars elevator can't throw payloads above Mars escape velocity.
But with higher taper ratio, it'd take ten times as much zylon mass than a Phobos elevator.
This is with a safety factor of 1.
A Zylon Mars elevator with better safety factors is impractical.

I hope to revisit the upper Phobos tether and lower Phobos tether pages and include safety factors of 2 and 3. I suspect with a higher safety factor that a Zylon tether from Phobos to Mars upper atmosphere may not be feasible.