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Space Science

Inflatable Tower Could Climb To the Edge of Space 296

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the out-of-breath dept.
MonkeyClicker writes with mention of a proposal that could see an inflatable tower helping to carry people to the edge of space without the need for rocket propulsion. This would function in place of previous space elevator designs which featured a large cable and could be completed much faster, if proponents of the project are to be believed. "To stay upright and withstand winds, full-scale structures would require gyroscopes and active stabilization systems in each module. The team modeled a 15-kilometer tower made up of 100 modules, each one 150 meters tall and 230 meters in diameter, built from inflatable tubes 2 meters across. Quine estimates it would weigh about 800,000 tonnes when pressurized — around twice the weight of the world's largest supertanker."
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Inflatable Tower Could Climb To the Edge of Space

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  • by hguorbray (967940) on Monday June 08, 2009 @05:58PM (#28257385)

    yep -world's biggest bounce house

    for the world's richest, most overgrown kids

    -I'm just saying

  • Yah... (Score:5, Funny)

    by eln (21727) on Monday June 08, 2009 @05:58PM (#28257397) Homepage
    I came up with lots of ideas like this in college...I also smoked a lot of weed in college.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Kell Bengal (711123)
      I'm also joining the me-too choir on this one. I had the idea a couple of months ago and ran simulations that said it was unfeasible at best. I'll be very interested to see if they can actually make it work.
      • Re:Yah... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Kell Bengal (711123) on Monday June 08, 2009 @06:22PM (#28257801)
        Oh, and also, to make the helium-filled sections carry their own weight, you need to make the sections increasingly large in volume to account for the decreasing pressure of air that can support less mass per cubic meter. Eventually you get to the ridiculous point where your tower is >100 m wide because the atmosphere is so thin. It's a structural nightmare, gyroscopes or not.
        • Re:Yah... (Score:4, Funny)

          by Abreu (173023) on Monday June 08, 2009 @06:32PM (#28257947)

          I thought making your house fly with helium balloons was something only old people did...

          • by Ucklak (755284)

            You must be thinking of that movie "What's Up [iwatchstuff.com]" where an old guy gets a hot air balloon to lift up his house and rescue people.

        • Re:Yah... (Score:5, Funny)

          by Red Flayer (890720) on Monday June 08, 2009 @07:04PM (#28258361) Journal

          Eventually you get to the ridiculous point where your tower is >100 m wide because the atmosphere is so thin.

          You naysayers will be crying when I build my giant space marshmallow chain.

          100 m wide? I don't think so. The trick is to fill them with your lighter-than-air mixture at the local atmospheric density... create, heat, inflate, rigidify, cool. And 100 m is just about right, from the base all the way up.

          When it gets too high, then you simply start at your Chambered Heuristic Orbital Clasp Object -- Ladder Attachment Terminal Endpoint, and work your way back down.

          The big problem I see is the earthbound anchor, but I believe professor William T. Graham (a pasty-white fellow my less couth colleagues refer to as a 'cracker') is working on a solution to that.

          All of humanity shall be as neanderthals around the campfire, envying the colossal testament to my intellectual superiority. Plus, they'll probably have a hankering for S'mores, what with the figurative campfire and all.

          • How long have you been waiting to use that? An entire post about graham crackers?
            • Nice try.

              It was actually about smores.

            • Re:Yah... (Score:5, Funny)

              by Red Flayer (890720) on Monday June 08, 2009 @07:42PM (#28258761) Journal

              How long have you been waiting to use that? An entire post about graham crackers?

              Well, the idea came naturally to me when I started to respond to the prior poster about the column needing to be very wide as the atmosphere got less dense. And then I got to thinking about how marshmallows get their lightness, and I thought maybe it would be applicable to the problem at hand.

              And then I realized I hadn't had dinner yet, and that I'd better call my wife on my way home and ask her to start the charcoal for the grill. And then I started thinking about s'moresr,because it's summer, and I'll be grilling over charcoal tonight, and I just couldn't help myself.

              Sometimes the muse takes over and we just sit, trancelike, while the genius flows from our fingertips to the keyboard. I don't think that really was me typing, nor was it my idea... it was like some force greater than man itself took ahold of me -- just used me as a conduit for brilliance. Kind of like Noah's ark, I guess... it is not my place to question why. It is only my place to build it, as directed by what can only be the divine inspiration of He of the Tangled Forkful, the FSM.

              But seriously, if you think that was thought up ahead of time, and I'd been waiting to use... don;t you think it'd be a little more polished?

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Khashishi (775369)

          I don't think the idea is to make it lighter than air, but just use air to provide some physical structure to it.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by jandoedel (1149947)
          Apparently someone forgot to RTFS, because it clearly SAID it would be bigger dan 100m in diameter: "230 meters in diameter"
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by eclectro (227083)

        I'm also joining the me-too choir on this one. I had the idea a couple of months ago

        I have had the idea before either of you, and actually have started construction [a1balloonrentals.com]

    • Re:Yah... (Score:5, Funny)

      by PopeRatzo (965947) * on Monday June 08, 2009 @07:41PM (#28258751) Homepage Journal

      You're lucky. I smoked a lot of weed and didn't get any ideas like this. The only idea I got was "Man, you think the Steak and Shake is still open?"

  • Spaced Out (Score:3, Funny)

    by mediocubano (801656) on Monday June 08, 2009 @05:59PM (#28257409)
    I guess this means that other crap idea of the space elevator is dead? (Maybe if we built a huge wooden badger.)
    • Did idea of vertical take-off and landing aircraft die out because of the development of aerodynamic lift aircraft?
      How about propeller aircraft after development of jet engines?
      Or lighter than air and other unpowered aircraft after development of powered aircraft?

      How about Macs? Does anyone anywhere use them at all since Windows came out?
      Is Linux dead?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by budgenator (254554)

      Not necessarily, If memory serves me correctly some guy named Nimrod [wikipedia.org] tried something similar in Babylon [wikipedia.org] and t didn't turn out well [wikipedia.org].

  • Note that this is would only extend a few tens of kilometers. It's to the edge of space, whereas a full elevator is aimed at getting *out* of Earth's gravity well.

    They're solving two different problems and aren't really that comparable.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Actually, "out of Earth's gravity well" would truly be the "edge of space", i.e., infinitely far away. As I understand, the biggest problem in getting to space is to spend as little time as possible in the deepest part of the well, because, going straight up, maintaining that altitude costs a lot of power. But if the structure is self-supporting, then you can hoist up your fuel and payload using more efficient means, since you don't have to actively maintain your altitude. It's called "gravity drag". I'm no
    • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Monday June 08, 2009 @06:30PM (#28257915) Journal

      Note that this is would only extend a few tens of kilometers. It's to the edge of space, whereas a full elevator is aimed at getting *out* of Earth's gravity well.

      Well if you just use it as a regular elevator and stop at the top, it's a nice tall observation deck where the atmosphere is really thin but not quite "into space".

      But if it can support the weight of the elevator and observation platform, it should be able to provide an equal upward force to a lighter payload that is being accelerated. Such a projectile might leave the top of the structure with enough velocity to put the apogee of its trajectory in low-earth-orbit altitudes.

      You'd have to provide additional thrust during that hop to bring the PERIGEE above significant atmospheric braking in less than half an orbit. But you've won half the battle by getting above the significant atmosphere on electric power rather than rocket reaction.

      Perhaps lean the thing over to get significant downrange velocity - and support its less-vertical run with more compression members of a similar construction while building a broader structure of multiple members to avoid bending between supports. (Octagon truss, anyone?)

      And the payload might also be composed of something like a long, thin, "cannon" with a "bullet" that is your final payload. "Fire" it (electromagnetically again) when near apogee. Then the "bullet" is circularized and the "cannon" returns to Earth for reuse with less momentum than when it left the elevator/catapult. Reenter and glide down - or land into another similar elevator structure and be gently lowered for reuse while the energy from the cannon stage's momentum and altitude is recycled into electric power.

      • (Octagon truss, anyone?)

        Make that "octahedron truss".

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Jherico (39763) *

        Such a projectile might leave the top of the structure with enough velocity to put the apogee of its trajectory in low-earth-orbit altitudes.

        No. LEO orbital velocity is about 5 miles per SECOND, and even then it has to be lateral. The nice part of a space elevator is that it goes all the way up to geosync orbit heights, the point at which you can let go and you're already in orbit. This is 25,000 miles above us. The highest this kind of thing could reach is probably no more than 50 miles, 1/500th the u

    • by EdZ (755139)
      I guess it could act as the catch/release point for a Rotovator/Skyhook, but I doubt a stationary point at a measly 15Km up would help much. Maybe if you could fire something laterally at mach 13 or so from the top of the tower to the lower tip of the Rotovator it might help, but you may as well just fly up there.
  • zeppelin (Score:5, Funny)

    by Hognoxious (631665) on Monday June 08, 2009 @06:01PM (#28257451) Homepage Journal

    They were trying to buld a zeppelin, but the printer did the plans in portrait format.

    Could happen to anyone.

  • by mrbene (1380531) on Monday June 08, 2009 @06:04PM (#28257493)
    Who else would be at the forefront of inflatable technologies [wikia.com]?
  • Babel (Score:5, Funny)

    by dugn (890551) on Monday June 08, 2009 @06:07PM (#28257559) Homepage
    Didn't we do this already? I thought this is how we ended up with all the different languages.
  • by Joce640k (829181) on Monday June 08, 2009 @06:08PM (#28257569) Homepage

    Their 15km version would need ten years of the entire world's helium production to fill it.

    The 200km version would use up over half the world's estimated helium reserves.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by oodaloop (1229816)
      Can't we just mine helium from the sun?
      • by Dice (109560) on Monday June 08, 2009 @06:21PM (#28257765)

        Jupiter would probably be easier. 8-12% Helium by volume [wikipedia.org] in the upper atmosphere, and the rest is Hydrogen.

        • That's ridiculous. If Jupiter is 8-12% He bv, and 88-92% H bv, then Helium-filled balloons would *sink* in the Jupiter upper atmosphere... what use would that be?

          Oooh, ooh, I have a magical fantasy plan that would have us create balloons so as to SINK in Jupiter's gravitational well!

          Yeah, good thinking, buddy.

          /deliberately obtuse
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by nmg196 (184961)

        No need to use helium - just use air and then take out all the heavy bits.

        Or use a vacuum - that's even lighter than helium and far easier to manufacture by simply removing air from a container.

    • by QuantumG (50515) *

      Heh, just using air would seem to make a lot more sense.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by rcamans (252182)

      No, actually, it runs on hot air. We can have congress fill the whole structure in just 9 months (they don't work a whole year, you know)

    • by srothroc (733160)
      What if they used different gases? For example, heavier gases on the bottom parts, lighter gases on the top parts... I'm not scientist, but might that make a difference and allow it to stabilize slightly better?
    • No, I haven't done the math behind this. But given that the force of gravity decreases by the inverse square law, using something like the infltable tower might make the space elevator much more feasible to create.

      You mention helium, but why not simply use compressed air, especially at the higher levels?

      In any event, this is the sort of out-of-the-box thinking needed to make space travel feasible!

      • But given that the force of gravity decreases by the inverse square law, using something like the infltable tower might make the space elevator much more feasible to create

        Take into account the Earth has a radius around 6360km. Even if you go up 100km, that's just 1.57% farther, meaning a 2.47% reduction in gravity.

      • Compressed air is heavier than air.
    • by radtea (464814)

      Their 15km version would need ten years of the entire world's helium production to fill it.

      I don't understand this article at all. The headline is about a tower to "the edge of space" but the article is about something completely unrelated.

      I don't get it. It's almost as if the editors at the New Scientist posted a completely unrelated text under a headline for a totally different article.

      As you say, their tower is 15 km high. Where is the article about a tower to the edge of space? It's not there.

    • 15 km version: Ten years of world's helium production
      200 km version: Half of world's total helium reserves
      World effect when it bursts: Priceless
  • ... but can you imagine base jumping there?
  • Bad article. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Jartan (219704) on Monday June 08, 2009 @06:17PM (#28257707)

    This could have some use for escaping earth's gravity. Among all the theorized technologies one of the most promising has always been just launching stuff into space via rail gun style. If you have a long tube with nothing but vacuum inside it you can drastically increase the efficiency of such a device. The problem is the end of the device has to exit into something near vacuum or it would be like slamming into a solid wall made of atmosphere.

    If a tower like this could be built such that it contained a vacuum corridor inside it then we could perhaps finally pursue this idea with already existing technologies.

  • by Chysn (898420)
    she said...?
  • Prior Art (Score:5, Interesting)

    by realeyes (1565211) on Monday June 08, 2009 @06:40PM (#28258057) Homepage
    Buckminster Fuller (my hero ;-) already came up with this, altho' he intended to use concrete. Basically, if the structure is large enough, making the inside of the structure a few degrees warmer than the outside air will cause it to float. Bucky described a sphere about 1 mile in diameter to be airborne, and somewhat smaller cones to be sea cities. Later . . . Jim
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by jcwayne (995747)

      Buckminster Fuller (my hero ;-) already came up with this, altho' he intended to use concrete. Basically, if the structure is large enough, making the inside of the structure a few degrees warmer than the outside air will cause it to float. Bucky described a sphere about 1 mile in diameter to be airborne, and somewhat smaller cones to be sea cities.

      Later . . . Jim

      Yeah, that'll go over like a lead balloon [youtube.com].

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by jandoedel (1149947)
      you do know the reason why "hot air floats" do you? it's because it expands, and therefore has lower density. So in order to make a 'concrete balloon', your concrete sphere has to be elastic enough to expand when you heat it. concrete is not really that flexible.
      or to translate this technobabble in something easier:
      - "oh, like putting too much air in a balloon?"
      - "indeed, but in this case the balloon is made of concrete"
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by tgd (2822)

        Um, no. Hot air balloons don't expand when you heat them up, otherwise the density of the air would remain at the external density and it wouldn't float. Notice how the hot breath you use when blowing up a balloon doesn't make it float.

        Hot air balloons work because they DON'T expand. They let air out the bottom as the density drops.

        You've got how it works ass-backwards. You heat the air to put LESS air into the balloon, not more.

  • Has anybody calculated the lateral forces exerted on this structure by a stiff ocean breeze? Say, something like 40mph gusts of wind? 'Cause I, for one, don't want to be one of the guys holding onto the guy wires of this overgrown Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon when it decides to make a break for freedom... I'm just sayin'.
  • Wouldn't it be far easier to lift a superstructure via deflation? Make a big carbon-nanotube globe and just vacuum it. Then you don't have to worry about harvesting impossible amounts of helium. To control rate of ascension/descension, you would just let air in through an airlock-type-valve for controlled flow to avoid implosion, and naturally just have some specialized pump to lower the air pressure inside to make it rise.

  • Prof. Brendan Quine (Score:3, Informative)

    by AikonMGB (1013995) on Monday June 08, 2009 @08:19PM (#28259085) Homepage

    Since it's not in the summary, Brendan Quine is an associate professor [yorku.ca] at in Space Engineering at York University in Toronto, Ontario (Canada). He is responsible for the Argus micro-spectrometer [yorku.ca] on the CanX-2 [utias-sfl.net] nanosatellite, currently operating on orbit. The satellite was developed by the University of Toronto's Space Flight Laboratory [utias-sfl.net].

    Aikon-

    • by Kozz (7764)

      Since it's not in the summary, Brendan Quine is an associate professor [yorku.ca] at in Space Engineering at York University in Toronto, Ontario (Canada). He is responsible for the Argus micro-spectrometer [yorku.ca] on the CanX-2 [utias-sfl.net] nanosatellite, currently operating on orbit. The satellite was developed by the University of Toronto's Space Flight Laboratory [utias-sfl.net].

      Aikon-

      I'd have expected Mr Quine to be an android who builds androids, actually.

  • by reboot246 (623534) on Monday June 08, 2009 @08:20PM (#28259103) Homepage
    Young Jack planted some beans today.

    Hey, compared to an inflatable ladder, I'm putting my money on Jack and his beanstalk.
  • The article is sketchy on details. Are these going to be air supported, or is their some sort of substructure? Because if the thing is 230 meters in diameter and needs to support 800,000 tonnes, I get something a little over 1 million kilograms per square meter, which is something like 60,000 PSI. That's a lot of pressure.
    • by T Murphy (1054674)
      If it uses buoyancy much of that pressure is distributed on the air below the sections of the tower. In this case you can't just count the footprint once. I am assuming they don't mean the bottom of the structure to provide much, if any, support for the tower above it.
  • It's not the altitude that is critical, it's the velocity. Let's say I were to teleport upward 100 miles, but with no other change in my velocity (also let us assume I am wearing a space suit). What happens? I fall down - because I have no where near the velocity to stay in orbit. Even if we keep the same angular velocity with respect to the earth's core I have now, I still fall down - I just miss hitting my house.

    OK, I happen to have an unobtainium mine in my basement, so I build a tower a thousand kilomet

  • Sounds dangerous, reminds me of the joke about the inflatable kid who went to an inflatable school.

    One day he had a tantrum, and took a compass and
    punctured his inflatable teacher, then his inflatable headmaster. On the way out he punctured the infaltable school. When he got home he punctured his inflatable parents, and then himself

    The next day in the headmasters office.

    "I am very disappointed in you, you know what you have done, you have let your me down, the school down, your parents down and most importa

  • Space fountains beat elevators every which way. Easy to make too. Just put a cylcotron at the bottom and magnetically bend the particles up, then put a cap at the top of the fountain to return the flow. Magnetic charge stabilizes the pnemautic tubes and powers the gyroscopes, not to mention pushing payloads up.
  • by LifesABeach (234436) on Monday June 08, 2009 @09:09PM (#28259607)
    I just had a flash back from my Newtonian Mechanics class: A Spider lands on the center of a record player [wiktionary.org] rotating at 45rpm's. The Spider attaches a web to the center of the record and begins to walk to the edge of the record looking for a way off. Given the weight of the spider, speed of the record; How far will the spider travel before being thrown off?

    I RTFA; but some of the details seemed a little fuzzy, like the density of the outside with respect to the inside of the tube, load bearing. Maybe a 3D Real Time Model could be fashioned in something like Blender3D. [blender.org] If the math proves out, cool. But if not, then maybe the model could be applied to some other similar engineering solution. That in itself would be a worthy engineering accomplishment.
  • A 20km-tall inflatable structure is indeed admirable, and a realistic step in the right direction towards building real super-structures like a space elevator, a floating Buckyball, etc.

    An novel approach for non-rocket launch, which may be more possible with the current state of technology than a space elevator (in that it requires less quantity of unobtanium), is a launch loop. It uses reactive centrifugal force to hold itself aloft.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Launch_loop [wikipedia.org]

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