Floor 1245: Designing a space elevator using SOLIDWORKS

It’s difficult to get into space, and as a result there’s been little change in how we do so in over 70 years – although modern rockets use a combination of both liquid and solid fuels. Liquid oxygen is pumped into a combustion chamber with fuel, where a reaction occurs and it expands. By directing this thrust with an engine bell, the rocket can lift off the ground.

Rocket engines can generate truly massive amounts of thrust, sending huge payloads into orbit around the Earth – or even beyond. In fact, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket actually generates 1.7 million pounds of thrust during its first stage of flight. This is more thrust than five 747 jets at full power.


This is the basis of rocketry, and it works. But what if there was a different way? What if instead of expending fuels and throwing rockets into the ocean (or reusing them, as SpaceX plans to do), we could send cargo and people into space in an elevator car?

In this article, we’ll take a look at the idea of a space elevator, how such a machine would work and how we could design one using SOLIDWORKS.

The world’s longest elevator ride

Imagine a tether stretching up from the Earth’s surface into space, running nearly a quarter of the way to the Moon. A 100,000 kilometer long cable in which you board an elevator at the bottom, and arrive five days later at the top beyond geostationary orbit.

For an idea of just how long this tether would be, the image below illustrates the size.


And why is it better than a rocket? It’s simple. Instead of expending propellent to get cargo and people into space, everything could simply be loaded into an elevator and sent up along a rail.

A space elevator may sound outrageous, but it’s a technology very much within our reach. Right now, the current limiting factors include cost and appropriate materials able to withstand the complex structural stresses predicted.

Designing such a technological wonder could be made easier with CAD software, which is capable of testing the various components of the construction and quickly developing concepts.

Where CAD – and SOLIDWORKS – comes into play

A space elevator is a pretty substantial undertaking, and as a result, SOLIDWORKS could prove useful across a number of different areas. Let’s take a look at a few of the ways in which this CAD tool could make the lives of engineers and designers easier, with insights from ANZ Territory Technical Manager for SOLIDWORKS Alex Kok.

The tether

One of the most important parts of a space elevator project, the tether is what connects the ground station to the orbiting counterweight. Without the cable, there’s no elevator.

Prior to and complementing actual physical testing, engineers could simulate the strength of various different elevator cables, as well as how the elevator cars would traverse up and down the length of the tether. Computer-Aided Simulation software such as SOLIDWORKS Simulation would be essential for validating the strength of the cable, and the effects of temperature and wind changes.

“One tremendous benefit software such as SOLIDWORKS Simulation affords engineers is the ability to consider a multitude of “what if” design scenarios and extremities before an actual working prototype is produced,” Alex explained.

“In the past, we used it to see if something could take a specific load. Now, we’re using it during the design phase. How much can we remove before it can no longer do the job. Is it going to break?”

Elevator cars

Unlike the elevator cars we use in buildings today, those on a space elevator would need to be significantly larger. In fact, they would need to be large enough to keep passengers comfortable for up to five days. Designers could use SOLIDWORKS to model the interior of elevator cars. Engineers, on the other hand, could easily prototype different configurations for the power systems and structure of the car.

Anchor stations

Space elevators will require two anchor stations: one in orbit around the earth and one placed firmly on the ground. These are the two stations in which the tether will lock into. Engineers could certainly use CAD software to prototype variations of the structures, but designers could also use the software to model visual changes.

This is one of the strengths of SOLIDWORKS – it allows both designers and engineers to easily collaborate on large projects.

“There’s nothing to stop it happening. It’s able to bring different fields together, break down barriers to collaboration,” Alex said.

Alex went onto explain that there are certainly going to be cross-cultural challenges when working across industries – something that would certainly be a challenge on a space elevator project. The right software could ease the design process.

Demonstrating the project to stakeholders

Finally, SOLIDWORKS Visualize can turn 3D models into stunning images that can be shown to stakeholders. This would prove important throughout a project on this scale, in order to both get feedback and showcase progress.

This is more than just a static image, however, users can use the software to create videos that showcase how the end product will actually work.

Interested in designing next-generation technologies?

SOLIDWORKS can be used for design in any industry. Whether it’s a 100,000 kilometre long space elevator or a shock absorbent new egg carton, the tools and add ons within the suite of SOLIDWORKS products enable engineers and designers to develop and then test any object.

If you’d like to learn more about SOLIDWORKS and the various packages that support it, contact us today or take your free trial.