Going up? Space just an elevator ride away

The tower would be made of Kevlar, polyethylene and compressed helium (Supplied)
The tower would be made of Kevlar, polyethylene and compressed helium (Supplied)

While New Zealand's trying hard to be the 11th nation to put a satellite in orbit the traditional way, in Canada they're pinning hopes on a helium-filled elevator.

Ontario-based Thoth Technologies has registered patents for a proposed structure reaching from the ground into the stratosphere. By avoiding the need to bust through 20km worth of atmosphere and gravity, Thoth says it hopes to drastically cut the amount of fuel needed to get into space.

The tower would be made of Kevlar, polyethylene and compressed helium, and while the initial proposal is to build one 15km high and stick it on a mountain, Thoth says it theoretically could reach 200km – right up into the thermosphere.

"It's quite doable," CEO Caroline Roberts said on the Paul Henry programme this morning.

"What's novel about the technology is that it uses readily available materials such as Kevlar and polyethylene."

Previous designs for space elevators have been too far ahead of their time to be built. The concept has been around since the 1800s – much longer than space travel itself. Generally, they've proposed putting a counterweight in a geostationary orbit around Earth 35,800km up, attached to the ground by a cable, which elevators could then ascend.

Ben Quine, who designed the Thoth elevator, says not only does the classic design need to be built in space, but the 35,000km-long cable would need to be replaced every six months due to damage caused by meteors and lightning strikes.

The Thoth elevator, on the other hand, can be built from the ground-up and uses existing technologies, including gyroscopes to keep it stable during storms.

"It doesn't need a rope. It has pressurised cells… probably with helium," says Ms Roberts.

"The lightest thing – air – is what gives the tower its strength as well… Because it uses available technology, we can build this within five to 10 years."

Not only could it help put payloads and astronauts into orbit, but give landlubbers a taste of space without having to get into a ship.

"From the top of the tower, we would imagine that there would hotels and restaurants, you could sit with a drink and look out and see the bright blue rim of the Earth beneath you in a controlled environment," says Ms Roberts.

"It would give you an experience that was very similar to being in space, but with some benefits such as you wouldn't have necessarily the sickness that some people experience when they go into low Earth orbit."

The catch is you'd still have to wear some kind of spacesuit, because atmospheric pressure at 20km is so low, water inside your body would begin to boil.

Thoth is yet to figure out just how people and cargo will be pulled up the tower, because existing cables aren't strong enough to carry more than 1.5km of their own weight. Dr Quine has some ideas, including having the elevator itself on the outside of the tower, curling around in a spiral, but admits his safety engineers probably aren't so keen on that.

In the next five years, the company hopes to build a 1.5km prototype, which would be the tallest manmade structure in history at nearly twice the height of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

3 News