In space travel, the first step is always the most expensive, but why blast-off in a rocket if you can catch a ride on a space elevator? Canadian space firm Thoth Technology has received a US patent for an elevator to take spacecraft and astronauts at least part way into space. If it’s ever built, the 20 km (12.4 mi) high Thothx inflatable space tower holds the promise of reducing launch costs by 30 percent in terms of fuel, and may even replace some classes of satellites.
Space travel is a field that is rich in paradoxes. Even though the cosmos stretches out tens of billions of light years away from us, it’s covering the first 100 km (62 mi) that mark the official boundary of space that presents the most difficult and expensive challenge for current technology.
Today, getting any higher than 50 km (31 mi) requires rocketry, but rockets are incredibly inefficient. Not only do they need to carry enough fuel to get a payload into orbit, but they also need fuel to carry the fuel to carry the fuel. Then, of course, there’s the problem of atmospheric drag which means expending even more fuel.
Over the past century, scientists and engineers have come up with many ways of overcoming these limitations. They’ve moved launch sites to the equator to take advantage of the velocity of the Earth’s rotation, they’ve tried launching rockets from balloons, and explored various catapult devices. However, one of the most efficient (at least, on paper) is also one that seems like pure fiction: a space elevator.