Obayashi Corporation
An artist’s rendering of a space elevator.

For more than a century, the scientific community has kicked around the idea of space elevators. Specifics vary, but the basic design involves a vehicle of some sort that travels along a cable that spans from the Earth all the way up into space. Japan is now set to begin tests on a space elevator which could one day see a lift travel all the way into the cosmos.

This week, scientists from Japan are set to send two miniature satellites to the International Space Station (ISS) in what could be the first of a monumental space elevator. The two tiny satellites, which will be attached by a 10-meter steel cable, will be released from the ISS on September 11 to mark the start of an extraordinary study.

Once the satellites have been released from the ISS, a small motorized container will travel between the ends. Cameras will be attached to either end of the cable so researchers can monitor how the box maneuvers between the satellites.

The test equipment, produced by researchers at Shizuoka University, will hitch a ride on an H-2B rocket being launched by Japan’s space agency from the southern island of Tanegashima next week. If all goes well, it will provide proof of concept.

“It’s going to be the world’s first experiment to test elevator movement in space,”

A university spokesman told AFP on Tuesday.

The project’s technical advisor, Japan’s construction giant Obayashi Corporation, is also working on a similar project, though it previously said it expects to deliver a space elevator by 2050.

The benefits of a space elevator compared to using rockets to access space are many: It is a scalable, inexpensive and reliable access to space that would benefit all. A space elevator would reduce the cost of getting from Earth to space considerably. It will also allow us to take very large payloads into space very easily, very safely.

The idea was first proposed in 1895 by Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky after he saw the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and was revisited nearly a century later in a novel by Arthur C. Clarke. But technical barriers have always kept plans stuck at the conceptual stage.