Space elevators are solid proof that any mundane object sounds way cooler if you stick the word "space" in front of it. But there's much more than coolness at stake when building a space elevator – this technology has the potential to revolutionize space transportation, and the Canadian private space company Thoth Technology that was recently awarded a patent for its space elevator design isn't the only company in the game.
One of the other major players is a U.S.-based company called LiftPort Group, founded by space entrepreneur Michael Laine in 2003. Its plan for a space elevator is vastly different from the one for which Thoth received a patent, however. Whereas Thoth's plans entail tethering a 12-mile-high inflatable space elevator to the Earth, LiftPort is shooting for the moon. Originally, LiftPort had planned to build an Earth elevator, too, but it abandoned the idea in 2007 in favor of building a lunar elevator.
The basic design for a lunar elevator is an anchor in the moon that is attached to a cable that extends to a space station situated at a very special point. Known as a Lagrange Point, this is the gravitational tipping point between the Earth and the moon, where their gravitational pulls essentially cancel one another out. A robot could then travel up and down the tether, ferrying cargo between the moon and the station. Out farther in space, a counterweight would balance out the system.
Both types of space elevator are intended to increase space access, but in very different ways. Thoth's Earth elevator aims to make launches easier by starting off 12 miles above the Earth's surface. LiftPort's space elevator aims to increase access to the moon in particular, because it is much easier to launch a rocket to the Lagrange Point and dock it at a space station than it is to get to the moon directly.
There's a third major company based in Japan called Obayashi Corp. whose plans look like a hybrid of Thoth's and LiftPort's. Obayashi is not a space company, however – it's actually a construction company. Like Thoth, Obayashi plans to build an Earth elevator. But its Earth elevator would consist of a cable tethered to the blue planet, a robotic cargo-carrier, a space station, and a counterweight. It essentially looks like LiftPort's plans, but stuck to the Earth instead of to the moon.
It's far from clear whether any of these companies will be successful in their space elevator endeavors. Famed pioneer of private space operations Elon Musk, for one, is not so confident.
"This is extremely complicated. I don't think it's really realistic to have a space elevator," Musk said at a conference at MIT in October 2014, according to BBC Future.
But anyone working on building a space elevator isn't afraid of setting lofty goals, of course.