Thoth is a Canadian company that makes miniaturized, lightweight gadgets to be taken into space, and now it has just patented an insane, sci-fi technology that could make getting them into orbit a whole lot easier.
The “design,” which is really little more than a “what if?” idea typical of patents, specifies a shaft made up of inflatable segments and cars that run up and down the inside or the outside of the tube using wheels or an electromagnetic drive. It’s a space elevator. But aside from the modular, inflatable construction, the other innovation here is that this elevator doesn’t use a cable.
And that’s a good thing too, as it would extend 12 miles up into space. Imagine the damage a 12-mile-long cable could do if it snapped.
“Astronauts would ascend to 20 kilometers [12 miles] by electrical elevator,” says inventor Brendan Quine. “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.”
The hardest part of getting into space isn’t going up–that’s relatively easy, and cheap in terms of fuel. The hard part is staying there, which involves accelerating the rocket until it is going fast enough not to drop back again. If you want to get into orbit around the Earth, you need to hit about 25,000 mph to do it. Think of firing a bullet from a gun. Fire it straight up and it goes pretty far. But if you want it to keep going around the Earth, you have to shoot it fast enough that it never falls back down.
Thought of another way, the bullet (or satellite, or whatever you launch) is constantly being pulled back down by gravity (i.e. falling), but it is going so fast it keeps missing the Earth.
A space elevator solves the problem because to top part is already moving at the same speed as a geostationary satellite, which orbits above a fixed spot on Earth by proportionally matching its speed to the ground below (only way faster, as the satellite is moving in a much bigger circle). Thoth’s proposed elevator is only 12 miles high, though, not nearly high enough for orbit–low Earth orbit starts at 125 miles, and geostationary orbit is 22,000 miles up. The patent does say that the elevator could be scaled to reach 200km, but that’s a little like saying that your bank balance could be scaled to reach $1 billion–it’s technically true, but the execution may prove tricky
What the Thoth elevator (theoretically) does is get your payload past the worst of the launch. Most of the mass of a rocket is fuel, and yet more fuel is required to lift it. Air resistance also significant when you’re trying to get tons of junk to move at 25,000 mph–just think about how difficult things get when you ride a bike against a wind. Even a 12-mile-high elevator would eliminate much of that, with a launch platform at the top for further travel, and a 200-km high shaft would get anything into orbit, slowly but cheaply.
Thoth’s patent also speculates on tourism opportunities. The elevator would have additional platforms at various altitudes. These could house hotels with awesome views, or provide an easy way for skydivers to get up high–kind of like a ski lift for parachutists.
These high platforms could also be used as airports.
“Landing at 12 miles above sea level will make space flight more like taking a passenger jet,” says Thoth President and CEO, Caroline Roberts, although rising 12 miles in a space elevator might make those annoying trips to and from the airport seem easy.