Not even Willy Wonka could dream up an elevator this otherworldly.
The Canadian company Thoth Technology has secured a U.S. patent for a 12.4-mile-tall inflatable space elevator that, if it is ever built, could drastically reduce the cost of transporting both cargo and people into space.
The freestanding tower would be comprised of inflated sections "held rigid by pressurized gas," notes Global Construction Review, and would stand 20 times higher than Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's current tallest building.
"Astronauts would ascend to 20 km by electrical elevator," inventor Brendan Quine explained in a media release. "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 company believes the elevator could save more than 30 percent of the fuel used to power a conventional rocket, thereby making "space flight more like taking a passenger jet," according to Thoth CEO Caroline Roberts.
The concept of a space elevator is nothing new, going back to Russian space pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's 1895 idea of constructing a free-standing tower tall enough to reach geostationary orbit, the point in space where a satellite orbits at the same speed as Earth's rotation, thus staying in one spot above the Earth's surface.
That would mean building a tower about 22,000 miles high -- something that's currently impossible, because there is no readily available material that could support a tower that tall, notes The Telegraph. From that elevation, the cost of transporting goods into space would drop drastically, from around $10,000 per pound using today's rocket technology to around $230 per pound, reports the BBC.
While the 12.4-mile Thoth elevator would fall far short of a geostationary orbit, it could still cut down on the cost of space travel incurred by fighting gravity, explains CNet's Eric Mack:
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 is 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.
Fantastic as it sounds, the Thoth tower remains little more than a patented concept for now, but one that's certain to be the subject of some discussion at the 2015 Space Elevator Conference in Seattle, Washington, this weekend.