Cheap, easy and regular access to space is something that’s been dreamed of for decades. While some think that reusable rockets or space planes are the answer, a space elevator is often touted as a possibility. And Canadian company Thoth Technology has now filed a patent for such a construction.
A space elevator is a way to get cargo – human or otherwise – into space without having to launch a rocket from Earth’s surface. Let’s clarify something first, though: Space elevators are not plausible at the moment. There are a huge number of complications, far too many to go into detail here.
In brief, we lack the necessary strong and light materials to make a space elevator. Even if we could build one, how useful would it be? You would still need to accelerate anything launching from one to more than 27,000 km/h (17,000 mph) to achieve low Earth orbit, so you would still need a powerful rocket engine. And we don’t yet know how to lift something to that height; NASA sponsored a regular space elevator competition in the past to solve this, with little success.
(Edit: As pointed out in the comments, the orbital mechanics are a bit different for a tether/counterweight design, which has its own complications, but we're just dealing with this particular concept for now).
This latest patent – US Patent 9085897 – from Thoth doesn't do much to address these problems. It is a series of nice illustrations and vague science, nothing more. But, at the very least, it does provide some thoughts on what might one day be possible – albeit far in the future.
As explained on the company's website, this design “is pneumatically pressurized and actively guided over its base,” which means it is supported by gas cells while the center of gravity can adjust for external forces like hurricanes. The structure could also be used for “wind-energy generation, communications and tourism,”
It’s not really a space elevator, though. The structure would stand 20 kilometers (12 miles) tall, far below the Karman line – the official boundary of space – at 100 km (62 miles). According to the illustrations, it would have a runway on the top, from which space planes could actually launch into space and save “more than 30% of the fuel of a conventional rocket.” In the patent, though, it’s said that the tower – which is held rigid by pressurized gas – could be scaled to reach 200 kilometers (120 miles) somehow.
Well, at least it looks nice. Thothx.com.
Inventor Dr Brendan Quine, who leads Thoth's technical team, said in the statement: “Astronauts would ascend to 20 kilometers by electrical elevator. From the top of the tower, space planes will launch in a single stage to orbit, returning to the top of the tower for refueling and reflight.”
Thoth President and CEO Caroline Roberts added that, coupled with SpaceX’s reusable rocket system, this could usher in a new era of space transportation. “Landing on a barge at sea level is a great demonstration, but landing at 12 miles above sea level will make space flight more like taking a passenger jet,” she said.
But let’s be blunt. This is not going to happen any time soon. Most people think that a true space elevator will need some sort of counterweight at geostationary orbit to keep the whole thing stable and allow access to actual space. And building something like this is far beyond the realms of possibility at the moment.
Professor of Space Science John Zarnecki from the Open University agrees. “I applaud scientists and engineers to have ‘crazy ideas,’” he told IFLScience, but he said that creating such a large structure meant that it was likely that it would be damaged or even destroyed by a piece of debris or a micrometeroid in Earth orbit. “And that's without the problems of cost and material strength and international regulations and so on,” he added. “However, I’d be very happy to be proved wrong and find that within a couple of decades this really is a viable way of getting our payloads into space.”
In the future? Who knows. Just don’t get your hopes up yet.