Space elevator offers astronauts a shortcut to the stars

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Canadian space tech company Thoth Technology recently received both UK and U.S. patents for a first-of-its-kind space elevator. The shaft would eliminate the need for expensive and dangerous rocket launches and reduce the consumption of fuel by 30 percent, according to the company.

The patented structure – called ThothX – would be a 12-mile high (20 km), partially inflated tower that would transport cargo and crews to the edge of the stratosphere. At the top of the tower would be a runway allowing vehicles similar to the space shuttle to take off and land just as a modern airplane would.

“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,” said Dr. Brendan Quine, the inventor, in a press release.

The tower “is at least partially formed from flexible sheet material and is at least partially supported by internal gas pressure” according to the patent. It might serve also for local communications and r\high-altitude observation, besides the obvious tourist opportunities.

How it works

During a typical vertical takeoff, the familiar combustion of liquid hydrogen and oxygen drives the rocket straight up. What many people might not realize is that somewhere between nine and 15 miles into the air, when the rocket boosters are dropped into the ocean, the space shuttle curves to a more horizontal (though diagonal) trajectory on its way into orbit. ThothX meets the trip at that point, eliminating the costly and “inefficient” vertical takeoff.

The idea for a space elevator has been around for at least 120 years when Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky thought of it after visiting the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Arthur C. Clarke famously described such a structure in his novel The Fountains of Paradise.

Many critics of the concept have called it impossible because no known material exists to support such a structure, even if it were tethered to a satellite in orbit around the Earth. What Thoth does is remove the need for vertical takeoffs while not risking a far more complicated endeavor that would require as-yet-to-be-invented materials.

The tower itself is still a feat of engineering if it can be built, since it relies on cables and a counterbalanced mass system. The idea for a ribbon or tether-based elevator still faces the challenge of conceivable materials to make it work.

“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,” said Thoth President and CEO Caroline Roberts.

For more on how a space elevator could work, check out this TED Talk:

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