A Canadian company has clinched a patent for a 12.4 mile-high "space elevator" that could launch astronauts and tourists into orbit.
The free-standing tower would essentially be inflated, supported by a series of gas-pressurized cells, and serve as a docking platform for space planes that could launch cargo, tourists and satellites directly into lower orbit.
Thoth Technology, the Ontario-based company behind the invention, told CNBC the elevator could transport 10 tons of cargo at approximately seven miles per hour, with passengers able to reach the top of the tower in about 60 minutes. Passengers could then board a space plane that could reach lower orbit without the need for a costly rocket launch.
The elevator weighs about the same amount as a super crude tanker ship and is expected to cost about $5 billion to build. Thoth Technology said that once built, it will reduce the cost of reaching low Earth orbit by 30 percent compared to conventional rockets.
Traditional rocket launches can cost upwards of $250 million, while cheaper commercial offerings like those offered by SpaceX — the commercial aerospace company founded by Elon Musk— lists the launch price of its Falcon 9 rocket at $61.2 million and it's Falcon Heavy model at $90 million.
The inventor of the "space elevator" is Brendan Quine, an engineering professor at York University in Toronto and co-founder of Thoth Technology. He said the team behind the elevator worked on the concept for eight years before securing the U.S. patent in July.
"Other inflated tower designs have been explored previously, but they typically use buttress designs or support cables that we believe [are] impractical," Quine told CNBC.
Graham Warwick, a managing editor at Aviation Week, said that the aerospace industry had been looking for a cheaper way to launch goods and people for decades.
"Single-stage-to-orbit from the ground has so far proved impossible and a true space elevator (stretching all the way into space) would be hideously expensive to construct if we knew how, so this is another way to do it," Warwick told CNBC.
"Once built — if built, and if it works — this would seem to offer easier, more routine access to space. For spacecraft and for people."
The next step for Thoth is to build a 0.9-mile-tall demonstration elevator, before building the full 12.4 mile-high tower. Even the demonstration tower would be the world's largest structure, Quine explained.
Quine said that there was little to hold back development, since all of the technology required to build the elevator was readily available, adding that a demonstration elevator could be built within three years, and a full version within five years.
Holidays in space?
Once built, Warwick said there might be further commercial opportunities, especially for tourism.
"It could house hotels and restaurants that would provide the experience of being in space without the potential discomfort of zero gravity," he said.
Quine didn't give any names, but said there has been "intense interest" in the space elevator's patent rights.