Going Up! Canadian Company Granted U.S. Patent For A Space Elevator

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Going Up! Canadian Company Granted U.S. Patent For A Space Elevator

A Canadian company has been granted a patent for their space elevator design - but is the enormous tower even feasible outside of science fiction?

It's an idea that has captivated scientists and writers for over a century - maybe back to Babylon, if are so inclined: building a tower whereby we climb to space. In the late 1800s, it was the Russian father of rocketry, Tsiolkovsky, who first proposed a free-standing tower reaching from the surface of the Earth to the edge of space. Firing a rocket from Earth, the theories went, is nearly impossible - but once we get something into geostationary orbit, the rest is (relatively) a cake walk.

As it happens, we can successfully fire rockets from the Earth - but that's not to say it's always easy. A space elevator - a massively tall tower that reaches up past the atmosphere, carrying equipment and people close to orbit - could solve a lot of problems. If only someone would build one of these things!

It looks like Ontario, Canada-based company Thoth is going to try their hand at it. They were recently awarded a U.S. patent for their space elevator concept, and the scientific community is at once hopeful and sceptical.

Dr. Brendan Quine, the inventor, describes it thus: "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 reflight."

Once the 20 km (a little over 12 miles), inflatable structure is built, an estimated 30% could be saved from fuel costs alone compared to conventional rockets.

Thoth CEO and president, Caroline Roberts, is understandably enthusiastic. "Landing on a barge at sea level is a great demonstration," she says, taking a not-so-subtle dig at competitor SpaceX, "but landing at 12 miles above sea level will make space flight more like taking a passenger jet."

Read more from the Escapist on space travel here.

Beyond space travel, Roberts says the elevator could be used for tourism, communication, and power generation. The latter could come about because of special flywheels along its surface, that use the massive winds buffeting the structure to provide energy for it.

Space elevators come up perennially in science fiction; most recently in my memory, the novel 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson envisioned an Earth with over 30 such towers linking the surface to low-Earth-orbit; and in the Android universe, which includes Netrunner, the construction of the 'Beanstalk' spurs much of the social change that separates that future from our present. Strangely, I can't think of any films that have featured space elevators - can anyone think of better examples?

Source: The Star, Thoth

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Oh great. An elevator that stops every ten feet to let more people on while a voice of the PA apologizes.

I thought one of the requirements for a patent was a working prototype. This just shows how friggin' broken the U.S. patent office/system is.

...of course, if they actually build it, and it works, I'll gladly eat my words. But at first blush this seems like yet another company that's going to sit on a patent that it can't really use and doesn't really deserve just so that if someone else actually gets the job done, they can sue them for millions.

Silentpony:
Oh great. An elevator that stops every ten feet to let more people on while a voice of the PA apologizes.

Could be worse!

20 Km tall? While it would certainly be a massive improvement over current launches this is more like a space stepping stool rather than a space elevator. The traditional space elevator design where you anchor a cable to a satellite in orbit is more like 100,000 Km in length.

If you want another sci-fi novel on the construction of a space elevator Arthur C. Clarke (of 2001 A Space Odyssey fame) is Fountains of Paradise.

The_Great_Galendo:
I thought one of the requirements for a patent was a working prototype. This just shows how friggin' broken the U.S. patent office/system is.

As far as I'm concerned, there has never been a Requirement for a Working Prototype of a Patent. I think a Patent only needs to show how something works and that a Patent Officer can see how it would work. How else could Patent Trolls exist?

OT: It's neat, but it's also probably impossible to do currently with our tech. I'd love to see it built one day, but odds are it won't be built until 2050. Still, anything to make eventual space travel easier is good in my book.

PatrickJS:
I can't think of any films that have featured space elevators - can anyone think of better examples?

MST3k had a space elevator on the satellite of love

The umbilicus

RandV80:
20 Km tall? While it would certainly be a massive improvement over current launches this is more like a space stepping stool rather than a space elevator. The traditional space elevator design where you anchor a cable to a satellite in orbit is more like 100,000 Km in length.

In all fairness, the first 20 km is probably the hardest part to build and make functional. Plus once you're that high you're already effectively in space and 95% of the way to anywhere you're going to go. Just strap on an ion engine to whatever you build and you're good to go. It's actually a feasible low earth orbit jumping off point.

The other, more well known idea that you mentioned (using an elevator between 40,000 and 100,000 km) uses the idea of having an elevator which operates using a piece of solid mass at its top which is kept in geosynchronous orbit, and uses the kinetic energy of that mass to keep it upright.

I'll be honest, I think this new idea is actually a more realistic one in terms of ability to actually have it see the light of day, even if it would be more of a steping stone to getting things in orbit then being the 'ground to direct orbit' idea we've seen before. It would sure cut down on the price of building stations or launching satellites, to say nothing of getting the parts for built-in-space ships into orbit.

The_Great_Galendo:
I thought one of the requirements for a patent was a working prototype. This just shows how friggin' broken the U.S. patent office/system is.

Nope, a working prototype is not required. I think there may be such a requirement if two people put in for the same patent, a working prototype may be required to see who gets awarded the patent. But beyond that, there is no such requirement to walk into a patent office and get one. That is why I have never been impressed by people who have patents. I have heard it used as a mark of really smart person or someone who is really successful, but having a patent only requires an original way of doing something that has not been patented already and a few thousand dollars in lawyer fees.

OT: This would be awesome, but I don't know how that would even remotely work with modern building materials. The way I see it, it would have to have a foot print of several miles around and reduce in size as it gradually goes up in order to build a structure that can withstand the height. But I'm no engineer, so I don't really know.

The only thing other then books that i can think of that has a space elevator was one episode of star trek voyager called "Rise". Was a bad episode mostly because of Neelix.

This is such a bad idea on its own.

Add to it the terrorism potential and this gets far worse... it's to juicy of a target.

Draconalis:
This is such a bad idea on its own.

What's so bad about the idea?

Add to it the terrorism potential and this gets far worse... it's to juicy of a target.

No more so then any space infrastructure Earth-side. If it was ever built, it'd probably have the same state of being placed somewhere near the equator, likely in French Guyana, and would most definitely be on or adjacent to a military instillation.

9/11 isn't going to happen again, it only happened at all because it was inconceivable at the time and everyone thought a hijacking would lead to hostage taking with demands for money, defection or prisoner releases. A hijacking of a plane is virtually impossible in the post-9/11 world.

PatrickJS:
Strangely, I can't think of any films that have featured space elevators - can anyone think of better examples?

It probably just doesn't show up as much because, to the unenlightened (Re: people who don't have any interest in sci-fi novels but will kill a few hours seeing some summer blockbuster with the kids) the space elevator sounds like an absolutely ridiculous idea.

I know the first time I heard about it I got this weird image of a Wily Coyote scheme, buying Acme parts and cobbling together some impossible contraption that ran on cartoon physics. It just sounded so absurd. Granted, I guess the idea of stuffing people into giant hollow cans and firing them into the sky until they hit something that isn't sky might've sounded ridiculous too, once.

The_Great_Galendo:
But at first blush this seems like yet another company that's going to sit on a patent that it can't really use and doesn't really deserve just so that if someone else actually gets the job done, they can sue them for millions.

Eh, I wouldn't worry about it, we aren't anywhere close to seeing one of these built, the patent would have expired, company gone under and/or everyone in the US has eaten each other before this becomes an issue.

I once did a calculation to check the feasibility of a space elevator that's attached to Earth and has a geosynchronous anchor in space. The anchor, of course, has to be set well past the geosynchronous orbit because it's the center of mass of the entire system that has to be at geosynchronous orbit for the platform to remain stable (i.e. not falling down and crashing on Earth, and not ripping loose and flying away to space). Calculating the amount of stress that occurs at point of geosynchronous orbit, which is the point that will have the most stress applied, what I found is that current nanotube materials are about 1-2 orders of magnitude too weak to hold. Essentially, the thing would break in half, with one half crashing on the Earth and the other flying out to space. Thus, I concluded, the entire idea of a space elevator is just fanciful garbage, physically undoable.

Reading this article spurred me to think on the problem a bit again. The primary problem is that the elevator is too heavy because it is just too long, and it's too long because of the insistence to anchor it on Earth, necessitating geosynchronous orbits. However, what if you just let the bottom of the thing float freely some 45-50k feet above Earth's surface. Sure, you'll need high-altitude planes (which we currently have available) to get to the base-station, but you no longer have the requirement of a geosynchronous orbit. This means you can make the elevator much, much shorter, significantly reducing the tensile stresses and put them well in range of current nanotube materials strength. The caveat, however, is that you still need the anchor in space that maintains the center of mass at a stable orbit. Also, the anchor needs an active propulsion system to keep the elevator in orbit against atmospheric drag. The base-station at the bottom could also have jet engines that assist with keeping the entire elevator in orbit by supplying additional momentum to the elevator.

With a free-floating elevator, you wouldn't need an elevator that's 100,000 km long. You'd probably only need one that's 300-1000 km long. However, it is possible you may need a lot more fuel to maintain the orbit. Although, ion propulsion and electrically powered jet engines could probably be used to mitigate direct fuel usage, and, of course, these propulsion systems would be powered by electric solar panels attached to the anchor in space and, possibly, at various points along the elevator's track.

The other issue with the free-float elevator is that you will need to track its location, and it will likely be moving extremely fast relative to the Earth's surface in order to maintain orbit. It really depends on which orbit the center of mass is placed. The lower the orbit of the center of mass, the faster the entire elevator has to move relative to the Earth's surface to maintain orbit.

I think both these issues can be overcome with some clever engineering such to make the free-floating space elevator a much more feasible idea than either the geosynchronous ribbon from space or the tall tower (which I think the wind is just going to blow that right over without a second thought) that this article reports.

Zontar:

RandV80:
20 Km tall? While it would certainly be a massive improvement over current launches this is more like a space stepping stool rather than a space elevator. The traditional space elevator design where you anchor a cable to a satellite in orbit is more like 100,000 Km in length.

In all fairness, the first 20 km is probably the hardest part to build and make functional. Plus once you're that high you're already effectively in space and 95% of the way to anywhere you're going to go. Just strap on an ion engine to whatever you build and you're good to go. It's actually a feasible low earth orbit jumping off point.

An ion engine probably isn't going to cut it. The difficulty getting into space isn't the altitude, it's the velocity required to stay up there.

https://what-if.xkcd.com/58/

20km is a good starting point because it saves you having to force your rocket through the thicker bits of the atmosphere, which cuts down on fuel requirements, but you're still going to need a pretty large impulse to lift off the top of the elevator and attain orbital velocity. At the moment, the only such way of getting that kind of thrust is with a rocket. Ion drives and laser propulsion and all that stuff is too low thrust at the moment.

OneCatch :

Zontar:

RandV80:
20 Km tall? While it would certainly be a massive improvement over current launches this is more like a space stepping stool rather than a space elevator. The traditional space elevator design where you anchor a cable to a satellite in orbit is more like 100,000 Km in length.

In all fairness, the first 20 km is probably the hardest part to build and make functional. Plus once you're that high you're already effectively in space and 95% of the way to anywhere you're going to go. Just strap on an ion engine to whatever you build and you're good to go. It's actually a feasible low earth orbit jumping off point.

An ion engine probably isn't going to cut it. The difficulty getting into space isn't the altitude, it's the velocity required to stay up there.

https://what-if.xkcd.com/58/

20km is a good starting point because it saves you having to force your rocket through the thicker bits of the atmosphere, which cuts down on fuel requirements, but you're still going to need a pretty large impulse to lift off the top of the elevator and attain orbital velocity. At the moment, the only such way of getting that kind of thrust is with a rocket. Ion drives and laser propulsion and all that stuff is too low thrust at the moment.

If that space elevator was high enough to reach geosynchronous orbit...

Whilst any progress towards a space elevator is cool, and something I'd love to see achieved in my lifetime, this 20km launch platform does seem significantly less ambitious than the Obayashi Corporation plan with its 96,000km carbon nanotube cable and 100-ton climbers going direct to GEO - http://www.obayashi.co.jp/english/special/2014110424.html so I'm pinning my hopes on that instead! :o)

Sounds amusing, but not overly impressive. It would cut costs a bit, but it wouldn't be the massive cost gains implied by an actual full space elevator.

I wonder if we can even build something like that though?
I mean, What's the tallest structure built so far? 1? 2 km at most?
And those aren't exactly strong. (They're radio towers)

It'd be more impressive if they'd actually started to try and build something...

As for fiction, the only thing I can remember is several different anime series.

One I'm not sure what it was anymore. That seemed to have a magnetic induction catapult with a high tower. Not sure how high that would've got. It got blown up at some point during the series...

Kiddy grade had some kind of launch system that hooked spaceships to a launch rail, and fired it up a tower a considerable distance.
The interesting thing here is that the launch rail itself was already at high altitude on something akin to an orbital ring attached to the ground with towers.

So not only was it a space elevator, it's also a very tiny 'ring world', and a magnetic induction launching system.

The ships in that series still looked to be able to reach orbit on their own power though, so I guess it saved fuel? Especially since the launching system is powered from the ground, rather than the ship.

The rather bizarre method of travel seen in Galaxy railways again seems to have that magnetic induction launching system going on...
Since the spaceships in that are trains for some reason, it basically amounts to a 90 degree curve of track running up a tall tower that accelerates the trains into orbit.

... Come to think of it, all of these seem more like induction launching systems designed to launch objects into space using power on the ground rather than in the vehicle.

Few of them seem to be space elevators as such. The arrangement seen in kiddy grade seems to come closest...

Odd that. You really don't see space elevators very often. (as someone pointed out though, star trek voyager did have one in an episode though.)

Mobile Suit Gundam 00 both seasons though season two shows the potential issues of terrorism but that's the trouble with anything.

Action starts about 6min in,showing how a space elevator could work to preserve itself when damaged at about 9:30 and onward.

Also, Mobile Suit Gundam G Reconguista has some sort of space elevator cable guide tracks.

Okay, maybe there's stuff I'm missing here.

First off to work be it 20KMs or taller AFAIK a space elevator ends up being more like a large building at the base that slowly reduces its cross section as it climbs. So with that in mind isn't one of the major hurdles of building tall buildings the fact that they sway? That due to centripetal forces (I think) and higher speed winds as you increase in altitude the sway increases exponentially to the height and sets a hard limit on building height. It's only through special design features like extremely large mass dampers and clever shaping of the building that we've got as high as we have. And once you exceed the limit a tall building would pretty much do a "galloping gertie" and tear itself apart.

The only reason the concept of a space elevator works is that having the space end at a L1 (again I think) point in space causes the space elevator to kind of sync up with the rotation of the earth and reduce a lot of the swaying and stress problems AFAIK. So wouldn't building a 20KM space elevator have it's own set of problems no easier to overcome then building the one postulated in many Sci Fi stories? That in fact building a 20KM space elevator might even be harder than building a full height one?

Zontar:
snip

A structure that tall will have a lot of energy when it falls, and depending on where they build it, the damage could potentially be felt half the world away.

geizr:
I once did a calculation to check the feasibility of a space elevator that's attached to Earth and has a geosynchronous anchor in space. The anchor, of course, has to be set well past the geosynchronous orbit because it's the center of mass of the entire system that has to be at geosynchronous orbit for the platform to remain stable (i.e. not falling down and crashing on Earth, and not ripping loose and flying away to space). Calculating the amount of stress that occurs at point of geosynchronous orbit, which is the point that will have the most stress applied, what I found is that current nanotube materials are about 1-2 orders of magnitude too weak to hold. Essentially, the thing would break in half, with one half crashing on the Earth and the other flying out to space. Thus, I concluded, the entire idea of a space elevator is just fanciful garbage, physically undoable.

Another issue...supposing you could get that sort of material, there is all sorts of things it could be used for.

For example, a wire thin enough to be invisible and more than razor sharp, and yet very strong. I do NOT want just anyone to be able to play with that.

geizr:
Reading this article spurred me to think on the problem a bit again. The primary problem is that the elevator is too heavy because it is just too long, and it's too long because of the insistence to anchor it on Earth, necessitating geosynchronous orbits. However, what if you just let the bottom of the thing float freely some 45-50k feet above Earth's surface. Sure, you'll need high-altitude planes (which we currently have available) to get to the base-station, but you no longer have the requirement of a geosynchronous orbit. This means you can make the elevator much, much shorter, significantly reducing the tensile stresses and put them well in range of current nanotube materials strength. The caveat, however, is that you still need the anchor in space that maintains the center of mass at a stable orbit. Also, the anchor needs an active propulsion system to keep the elevator in orbit against atmospheric drag. The base-station at the bottom could also have jet engines that assist with keeping the entire elevator in orbit by supplying additional momentum to the elevator.

With a free-floating elevator, you wouldn't need an elevator that's 100,000 km long. You'd probably only need one that's 300-1000 km long. However, it is possible you may need a lot more fuel to maintain the orbit. Although, ion propulsion and electrically powered jet engines could probably be used to mitigate direct fuel usage, and, of course, these propulsion systems would be powered by electric solar panels attached to the anchor in space and, possibly, at various points along the elevator's track.

The other issue with the free-float elevator is that you will need to track its location, and it will likely be moving extremely fast relative to the Earth's surface in order to maintain orbit. It really depends on which orbit the center of mass is placed. The lower the orbit of the center of mass, the faster the entire elevator has to move relative to the Earth's surface to maintain orbit.

I think both these issues can be overcome with some clever engineering such to make the free-floating space elevator a much more feasible idea than either the geosynchronous ribbon from space or the tall tower (which I think the wind is just going to blow that right over without a second thought) that this article reports.

...

Huh. That certainly is an unusual idea. No idea if that is remotely feasible and, TBH, given that lots of people have discussed space elevators and I've never heard of this approach, either your name will go down in history, or it's a really, really bad idea.

However, someone really should make a weird animated TV show about a space elevator that floats around the world.

There was a space elevator in New Mombasa in Halo 2, 3 and ODST.


DonTsetsi:
If that space elevator was high enough to reach geosynchronous orbit...

Oh, certainly - but by the time you get that high you're gaining substantial angular velocity, makes the difference.

That... does raise an interesting question though. If the object is gaining angular velocity, where is that coming from? Is it reducing the orbital speed of the tether, or is gained via the work done raising the object vertically? Might have to work that one out later!

If the former, it implies you'll need to do just as much work on the tether as you would getting stuff into orbit conventionally.

Draconalis:

Zontar:
snip

A structure that tall will have a lot of energy when it falls, and depending on where they build it, the damage could potentially be felt half the world away.

Doesn't that mean that a 20km one build in isolation in a coastal area make it a better idea then a 100,000km one built, well, anywhere?

OneCatch :

Zontar:

RandV80:
20 Km tall? While it would certainly be a massive improvement over current launches this is more like a space stepping stool rather than a space elevator. The traditional space elevator design where you anchor a cable to a satellite in orbit is more like 100,000 Km in length.

In all fairness, the first 20 km is probably the hardest part to build and make functional. Plus once you're that high you're already effectively in space and 95% of the way to anywhere you're going to go. Just strap on an ion engine to whatever you build and you're good to go. It's actually a feasible low earth orbit jumping off point.

An ion engine probably isn't going to cut it. The difficulty getting into space isn't the altitude, it's the velocity required to stay up there.

https://what-if.xkcd.com/58/

20km is a good starting point because it saves you having to force your rocket through the thicker bits of the atmosphere, which cuts down on fuel requirements, but you're still going to need a pretty large impulse to lift off the top of the elevator and attain orbital velocity. At the moment, the only such way of getting that kind of thrust is with a rocket. Ion drives and laser propulsion and all that stuff is too low thrust at the moment.

Still, it's a good jumping off point that would cut down the fuel and cost needed to launch a satellite or a part of a station into orbit. It would sure make building a space station faster.

The_Great_Galendo:
I thought one of the requirements for a patent was a working prototype. This just shows how friggin' broken the U.S. patent office/system is.

...of course, if they actually build it, and it works, I'll gladly eat my words. But at first blush this seems like yet another company that's going to sit on a patent that it can't really use and doesn't really deserve just so that if someone else actually gets the job done, they can sue them for millions.

Seeing how patents only last for 20 years, that isn't going to happen; if anyone else wants to do it I'm sure they'd be happy to wait the 20 years necessary to do so, especially seeing as construction of the thing would probably take a large chunk of that time.

Best bet, they're just doing it for attention.

All they have to do now is engineer novel materials and make them affordable for mass manufacture. 50... 100 years, tops.

Inflatable... This isn't like a really tall building, it's like a blimp on a rope.

OneCatch :

DonTsetsi:
If that space elevator was high enough to reach geosynchronous orbit...

Oh, certainly - but by the time you get that high you're gaining substantial angular velocity, makes the difference.

That... does raise an interesting question though. If the object is gaining angular velocity, where is that coming from? Is it reducing the orbital speed of the tether, or is gained via the work done raising the object vertically? Might have to work that one out later!

If the former, it implies you'll need to do just as much work on the tether as you would getting stuff into orbit conventionally.

If you take an object to Geostationary orbit from the ground the change in angular velocity is zero to the entire system.

The object is already spinning when it is on the ground and maintains the same angular velocity the entire trip.

Zontar:

Draconalis:

Zontar:
snip

A structure that tall will have a lot of energy when it falls, and depending on where they build it, the damage could potentially be felt half the world away.

Doesn't that mean that a 20km one build in isolation in a coastal area make it a better idea then a 100,000km one built, well, anywhere?

It's better in the sense that a Tsunami is better than something striking with the force of a meteor... but frankly... no.

Draconalis:

Zontar:

Draconalis:

A structure that tall will have a lot of energy when it falls, and depending on where they build it, the damage could potentially be felt half the world away.

Doesn't that mean that a 20km one build in isolation in a coastal area make it a better idea then a 100,000km one built, well, anywhere?

It's better in the sense that a Tsunami is better than something striking with the force of a meteor... but frankly... no.

Well it's something that's going to happen anyway, so all we have to do is have a base built at its base and basic security security measures taken to protect it.

Zontar:

Well it's something that's going to happen anyway, so all we have to do is have a base built at its base and basic security security measures taken to protect it.

Security measures grow lax with time, and again, terrorism is only one potential problem to worry about. Nature has a way of making even man's most lasting structures into nothing but the dirt Bentham our feet.

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