- by Eric Mack
Technically speaking, getting to space hasn’t become any easier over the past half century or so. It still requires using huge rockets to create a massive enough amount of force to push a payload beyond the grip of Earth’s gravity.
Enter the concept of the space elevator, which uses much simpler gravity-defying technologies to access space.
So far, most space elevator concepts have been the stuff of sci-fi, and any plans to actually build one have remained on the rather distant horizon. But “push button” access to space took a step toward reality in late July when the US Patent and Trademark Office granted a patent to a Canadian company for its invention of an inflatable space elevator tower.
Thoth Technology, based in Pembroke, Ontario, devised a tower design using pressurized segments that reach up to 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) into the stratosphere where a platform could be constructed for purposes of communications, tourism or as a launch platform for reaching space. Unlike blasting off from near sea level, as most space launches do now, getting into orbit or beyond from the top of a space elevator more than 20 times taller than the highest structures on Earth would be more like an aircraft takeoff.
“Astronauts would ascend to 20 km 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 re- flight,” Brendan Quine, the inventor, said in a statement.
This elevator is far less ambitious than others we’ve reported on like plans from Japan’s Obayashi Corporation, which hopes to extend a space elevator quarter of the way to the moon by 2050.
The company sees space elevators leading to a new era of space travel when paired with other new technologies like self-landing rockets of the kind that SpaceX is working on.
Getting to that point will involve some new innovations that this patent doesn’t really address, however. The invention here is focused on the construction of the tower itself, but how to construct and maintain a strong, reliable elevator cable 12 miles long is the real challenge in the space elevator universe. In fact, it’s the focus of a space elevator conference taking place later this month.
The patent does suggest “the mechanism for elevating and lowering cars may be provided by frictional contact, at least one winch mechanism located along the length of the elevator core structure, or by inductive means” but each of those mechanisms would still need to be invented or customized to this design.
For now, we’re stuck having to ride fire to space, but the “slow space” movement is well under way and the invention of the new genre of space elevator music can’t be far behind.