Thursday, March 29, 2007

Magnetic Launch System

With a recent $500,000 Phase II contract awarded from the U.S. Department of Defense Small Business Technology Transfer Program, LaunchPoint engineers are now hard at work on an innovative magnetic space launch system. Continue Reading...
Circular Magnetic Launch System Design. Courtesy
Maglev technology, most known for propelling trains across Europe and Japan at great speeds, is being put to use for another purpose--launching satellites into orbit. Though this contract is only for launching satellites into orbit it is not too difficult to imagine the technology being used for eventually launching spaceships, cargo, and many other things into space. The idea of a magnetic launch system isn't that new but Launchpoint's design has brought a new twist into the concept--literally. There have been previous tests and studies done but most have been attempted with straight tracks. Launchpoint has gone for a circular track (as seen in picture). The circular design prevents the track from requiring quick bursts of acceleration to reach necessary speeds in time by elongating the track. The shape allows for a much longer acceleration period and thus a giant spike of energy is no longer needed to get a ship moving. More exciting though, is that the whole setup is not only technologically feasible but it is also cost effective.

So, what are the advantages? Well, the cost effectiveness is clearly one of the biggest ones. The price tag for sending things into orbit is currently about $4,000/lb. To put the cost effectiveness into perspective, a first generation design of this specific magnetic launch system would bring the cost down to roughly $750/lb! As advances are made and efficiency continues increasing this particular design could possibly drop the price down to an extremely affordable $100/lb or less! The possibilities really are quite amazing.
Unfortunately though, this particular design is not equipped for fragile instruments and definitely not humans. The design calls for a top speed of 10km/sec and when the satellite finally separates from the track and launches into the air it is hurtling at a startling 23 times the speed of sound! At Mach 23 the centripetal force on the satellite reaches a staggering 2000 times Earths pull of gravity. So, quite clearly, at 2000 G's this system is NOT viable for humans or
fragile equipment. Other equipment could easily be sent up though. Military grade electronics on laser-guided weapons can withstand 20,000 G's. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you see it, the magnetic launch rail could also be used to launch artillery across the globe or even into space.

Computer Model of a Maglev Spaceship. Courtesy
A magnetic launch system could be modified for human use too. Slowing the velocity down to 1000 km/hr and using a straight track is enough to dramatically increase cost and fuel efficiency. After being launched into the air by the maglev system a ship would then act like any other conventional rocket and ignite its engines until it reaches orbit. This extra boost lowers liftoff weight of a typical rocket by %20. Price now starts to drop considerably, especially when factoring in the laughable $75 cost of electricity for each launch.

Though the maglev technology has been around for about 100 years the progress is still in its very elementary stages. There is quite a bit of room for improvement. Hopefully, this means there will be continued improvement on the technology because a magnetic launch system has lots of potential. Writing this article has actually given me a few ideas and I hope it has done the same for you (and please share those ideas!).

Here are a few ideas of mine that hopefully can get the ball rolling for the rest of you:
  • Using a natural valley to make a sort of 'U' shaped maglev track.
  • Having the magnets 'follow' the ship as it travels the track to increase energy efficiency.
  • Digging underground rather than building it up in the air.
  • Catapult it and use the maglev system at the same time (or a 'sling' motion).
  • Have the system go up a mountain or as high as practically possible to decrease air resistance.
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Anonymous said...

that's tight as fuck

taw said...

It's very unlikely a new technology could significantly lower the total price by reducing marginal (per-launch or per-kg) costs. Probably the best data comes from Space Shuttle program - according to Wikipedia figures marginal costs per launch are mere $60 million, but total expenses are about $1.3 billion per launch. Over 95% of the expenses are just to keep the infrastructure operational.

Most high-tech proposals like maglevs, space elevators and so on seem to propose even more expensive infrastructure, in exchange promising lower marginal costs - but unless a sudden order of magnitude increase in space traffic happens, that's doesn't make much economic sense.

Sure, some day we'll get fancy space travel systems, but the only solution that works right now is the "Big Dumb Booster" - it relies on proven technology, requires little fancy infrastructure, and is pretty cheap per-kg.

Pat said...

Taw- You make a very good point. I do, however, think that this method is still cost effective for not necessarily Space Shuttles but definitely for satellites.

As for infrastructure, I agree with you wholly for space elevators. But I have to believe that a maglev infrastructure wouldn't be too incredibly difficult to maintain. Especially considering the same infrastructure has already been created for maglev trains.

I guess, in order to evaluate the advantages of a maglev system, we'd need to find out exactly where the $1.3 billion is spent and compare it to this method. Who knows, once the track is set up operational costs might end up decreasing.

Unfortunately the "Big Dumb Booster" continues to remain the only viable method. Hopefully projects like this one will eventually bring us out of this stage though.

Anonymous said...

a big circular track is great for equipment but how about another approach by starting with a circular track to accelterate to a sustainable speed for humans, then transfering to staight track for "lift off" so that the overall length of the track can be reduced. the biggest hurdle would be maintaining the infostructure so i would mount it underground away from the elements. sealing the tube would serve double duty by reducing drag on craft and insuring easier maintnence eg) source of leaks/areas of disrepair would be evident

winston said...

With the new "to the moon and then Mars" program (I forget its given name) and the return to Apollo style launch vehicles, wouldn't this be an ideal time to set in place this maglev system. Wouldn't this be a more cost effective method for getting the moon base modules into orbit for the transfer to the moon. I don't know what the maintenance cost are for this system, but I would rather not waste the fossil fuels for each launch especially when there is going to be a time when fuel will be needed for more useful things like making fertilizer.

I like the circular design. I also like the underground tube idea to reduce drag. My suggestion for your consideration puts the system on its side so the forces acting against the "train" are pushing down instead of side to side.

Anonymous said...

With the vehicle running at mach 23 in circular motion how would it be switched to a exit linear path in time. The switching process i feel would have to be super fast or it will be an real mess.

Also i wondering about issues as sonic boom when running at mach 23 and would it have a very loud launch noise?

Mammoth said...

If we could perfect a ram-drive the mag-lev could accelerate a shuttle-type craft up a mountain range until there was sufficent velocity for the engines to fire. By the time the craft is launched from the track, it would be under it's own power and by the time it leaves the atmosphere, the rams would have pressurised O2 being fed into them to operate as space engines.
The track could operate at two levels, one with a slower launch speed for humans and delicate technology, and at max power to launch more robust building materials for ISS and lunar colony expansion.

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