It is an idea that every small child has had at some point. Instead of sending up rockets into space, why not simply build a huge lift.
Now a Canadian firm has been granted a patent for a ‘space elevator’ which will shoot cargo 12.4 miles into the stratosphere from where it can be launched more easily.
“Astronauts would ascend to 12 miles by electrical elevator,” said Dr Brendan Quine, the inventor.
“From the top of the tower, space planes will launch in a single stage to orbit, returning to the top of the tower for refuelling and reflight.”
Rockets are incredibly inefficient because they need huge amounts of power to get off the ground, using up most of their fuel fighting against inertia and atmospheric drag.
Engineers had always believed that space elevators would be unfeasible because no material exists which could support itself at such a height – although diamond nano-threads have been suggested.
However the new design by Thoth gets around the problem by only building the elevator to 12.4 miles so that it sits in the stratosphere rather than going all the way out into geostationary orbit, where satellites fly, which is around 22,000 miles up.
Dubbed the ‘ThothX Tower’ it would be inflatable, made with reinforced segments and topped with a runway from which satellite payloads could be launched. It would stay upright using a complex arrangements of fly-wheels to compensate for the tower bending.
The patent suggests that either pressurised cars would run in the core of the structure – like in traditional pneumatic tube message systems, or alternatively, they could climb up the outside of the shaft like a funicular railway. Each car could carry around 10 tonnes of cargo.
According to the designers, the tower could also be used for scientific research, communications, and generate energy from high up wind turbines.
And the elevator could open up new possibilities for space tourism, bringing down the cost of flights and making travel more convenient.
“Landing at 12 miles above sea level will make space flight more like taking a passenger jet,” said Thoth President and CEO, Caroline Roberts.
Even though it does not go all the way to space, the blueprints suggest it would be 20 times taller than the current highest manmade structure, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai.
Space elevators were first suggested by Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895. Tsiolkovsky proposed a freestanding tower reaching into geostationary orbit.
Arthur C Clarke also wrote about a space lift in his 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise claiming it would bring down costs by transporting cargo directly up to satellites.
Structural engineer Peter Debney, from Arup, last year proposed a space lift based on how cathedrals control their centre of gravity by tapering at the top.
And in the US, the Washington based LiftPort Group is also planning is to use a ‘ribbon’ cable to transport material, robots and even humans to and from the surface of the Moon.
It will be attached to a space station in a Lagrange Point – where the Moon and Earth’s gravity cancel each other out out – so a spacecraft or station can remain stationary.
The cable from the station, dubbed the PicoGravity Laboratory (PGL), will drop down to a location on the Moon via an elevator positioned at an area called Sinus Medii, roughly in the middle of the face that looks towards Earth.