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 LaunchPnt.com
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 Liftoff.msfc.NASA.gov
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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