Wouldn’t it be great to have a truly jaw-dropping view? Like windows looking directly into space? Well, it’s time to build your very own cosmic skyscraper. What would it take to construct a building that reaches into space? How would you supply your penthouse with water and power? And what would you do if the elevator stopped working?
The Kármán line is the area that is often regarded as the boundary between Earth and outer space. This edge hovers about 100 km (62 mi) above our planet’s surface. Living this high up, you’d be one quarter of the way to the International Space Station. And your penthouse would be over 100 times higher than the tallest building in the world today, the Burj Khalifa.
This skyscraper in Dubai reaches a height of 830 m (2,722 ft). It would take about 20 seconds to hit the ground if you fell from the top of the Burj Khalifa. So be careful on your new balcony on a cosmic skyscraper. Because a fall from that height would be a much longer plummet to your death. Or would you simply burn up like a meteoroid entering the atmosphere?
In order to begin planning the tallest construction project ever, you’d need to take into consideration how big its base would need to be. With our current technology we could build something as tall as 4 km (2.4 mi). That’s roughly the same size as Mount Fuji. A concept skyscraper like this was proposed to help Tokyo with its surging population issues.
It would have required a base as large as 36 sq km (13.8 sq mi) to go along with a price tag in the trillions. A building that is 8.8 km (5.4 mi) tall, or the height of Mount Everest, would need a base that is 4,100 square km (1,580 square mi). That’s twice the size of the city of Tokyo, Japan. You’d certainly need a lot of land area for the base of your cosmic tower. But even if you had all the land you need, your issues would run deep. Literally.
A tower reaching to space would be so heavy that even the Earth below it would struggle to support it. It would create a ditch in the crust. Over hundreds of years, your tower would sink deeper and deeper. Your construction materials would be another important thing to consider. And another issue that you’d run into is that the materials you’d need might not even exist yet.
You’d want something that could withstand all the gravitational forces that would be pulling on it. One idea could be to develop a high-tech form of carbon similar to a diamond. But stronger, more flexible and extremely light. But a luxury space tower made of diamonds? Yeah.you should make sure you’ve got the budget for that.
As for the windows that would give you the most epic view, you could use aluminum oxynitride, or ALON. This transparent, ceramic-like material made of aluminum, nitrogen and oxygen would be more durable than the glass laminate used in spacecraft windows.
You and your hundreds of thousands of neighbors would have to think about the structure’s utilities, such as water and keeping the lights on. Luckily for you, this would be a great opportunity to put renewable resources to work.
You could build wind turbines into the skyscraper’s design. And so high above the clouds, solar panels would be able to soak up a lot of raw energy from the Sun. As for water, you could pull it directly from the sky around you. The troposphere holds nearly all of Earth’s water vapor, so you could collect rainwater and condensation from the surrounding clouds. Just leave some for us down below.
Going up to your luxury space condo wouldn’t be so simple either. You definitely wouldn’t be able to use the stairs if you were in a hurry. Or worse if there were an emergency. Theoretically, a space elevator could travel at speeds up to 320 km/h (200 mph). At a height around the Kármán line, you’d need about 25 minutes to get from your penthouse to the ground floor.
Maybe you’d have a faster commute if you used a parachute. Of course, that would be if you didn’t burn up like a meteoroid in the mesosphere. The truth is that living the high life would come with some downsides. The temperatures along the tower would vary dramatically. At the bottom of the thermosphere, it would be as cold as -120 °C (-184 °F). And at the top of that layer, it would be a scorching 2,000 °C (3,600 °F).
You certainly wouldn’t be able to enjoy a beautiful afternoon out on your balcony without a spacesuit protecting you from the extreme temperatures and providing you oxygen to breathe. There would also be a constant threat of damage from meteorites and broken satellites.
Hurricanes or tornadoes below you could topple the structure too. And if your 100 km (62 mi) tall building were to collapse, you could count on millions of tons of materials doing an enormous amount of damage below. Maybe it would be best to start with a project that could be a little more useful. Like engineering that space elevator I mentioned earlier.
- “The Kármán Line: Where Does Space Begin?”. Eric Betz. 2021. astronomy.com.
- “A Colossal Elevator To Space Could Be Going Up Sooner Than You Ever Imagined”. Scott Snowden. 2018. nbcnews.com.
- “Is There a Limit to How Tall Buildings Can Get?”. Nate Berg. 2012. bloomberg.com.
- “What’s The Tallest Thing We Could Ever Possibly Build?”. Jacinta Bowler. 2017. sciencealert.com.
- “Could Humans Build A Tall Tower Or Giant Rope To Space?”. Carolyn Wilke. 2019. sciencenewsforstudents.org.