Maglev track could launch spacecraft into orbit

Mar 13, 2012 by Lisa Zyga report
Maglev track could launch spacecraft into orbit

(PhysOrg.com) -- With the aim to make it easier to launch spacecraft into low Earth orbit (LEO), two researchers have turned to maglev technology to catapult a payload hundreds of miles above the Earth. While the concept may sound far-fetched, the researchers argue that the potential benefits to humanity far outweigh the costs.

The proposed launch system, called Startram, doesn't use rockets or , but instead is based on the concept of a mass driver. Also known as an electromagnetic catapult, a mass driver acts like a coilgun to magnetically accelerate a magnetized holder containing a payload. Although mass drivers commonly appear in science fiction and a few other concepts have been proposed, none has yet been built.

But according to its designers, Startram uses available technology and is commercially feasible, suggesting that it could potentially be built. The developers, Dr. James Powell, who co-invented superconducting maglev trains, and Dr. George Maise, an aerospace engineer who previously worked at Brookhaven National Laboratories, have as much experience as anyone to push the idea forward.

Maglev track could launch spacecraft into orbit

The researchers have proposed two different models: a cargo-only version (Generation 1), which would cost about $20 billion and take about 10 years to build, and a passenger version (Generation 2), which would cost about $60 billion and would need about 20 years for completion. While the cargo-only version could be built up the side of a tall mountain without the need for levitated tubes, the passenger version would require levitated tubes to hold the track up.

According to their plans, the Generation 2 magnetically levitated track would run about 1,609 km (1,000 miles) long, heading upward to an altitude of about 20 km (12 miles). While the track would be securely tethered to the ground, it would be held in mid-air completely by . The entire track would be enveloped in a vented vacuum tunnel to avoid sonic that result from the spacecraft's hypersonic speeds of up to 9 km/sec (5.6 miles/sec). Once it exits this track, the would be in position to reach LEO.

Maglev track could launch spacecraft into orbit

While it's easy to imagine what might go wrong with such a scheme, the researchers say the levitation force is more than strong enough for this purpose. They argue that Startram's cost advantages compel serious consideration. Currently, launching 1 kg (2.2 lb) of payload into LEO by costs about $10,000. The researchers estimate that StarTram could do the same for just $50. For space travelers, Startram could decrease the cost from $20 million (the current cost of sending a person to the International Space Station) to about $5,000.

As the developers explain, building such a system is within reach of current technology, with the biggest challenge being one of scale. Even though the velocities for the system would need to be about 50 times faster than today's maglev trains (which travel at speeds of up to 600 km/hr [373 mph]), much of the engineering is the same. Also, researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have performed an initial “murder-squad” investigation of the concept and found no obvious flaws.

On their website, Powell and Maise cite many reasons why having a Startram would be useful: defending the Earth against large asteroids, harvesting solar energy, mining raw materials from asteroids and comets, building space-based industries, and space colonization.

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More information: www.Startram.com
via: Gizmag

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User comments : 37

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krundoloss
4.4 / 5 (7) Mar 13, 2012
I like this idea. I just have one question:

"While the track would be securely tethered to the ground, it would be held in mid-air completely by magnetic levitation"

How would this work? I thought magnetic levitation is a short range force, yet they are proposing holding up a track that is 12 miles off the ground? I just dont get that part, maybe someone else knows and can fill me in.
Eikka
2.8 / 5 (6) Mar 13, 2012
What happened to the launch loop concept where you run a steel wire in a loop and hold it up in the air with its own inertia. A ship being launched would grab a hold with magnetic brakes and be catapulted to speed.
SteveL
4 / 5 (7) Mar 13, 2012
I'd think a hybrid system might be a safer and more easily engineered option. If a rail could get the payload up to several hundred MPH and at an upward angle a smaller and possibly reusable booster could propel the load up to orbit. Being smaller the launch facility would also be more secure and easier to maintain. a 1000 kilometer rail system is simply too open to security, environmental and maintenance issues - especially if a large portion were "levitated".
Eikka
2.4 / 5 (7) Mar 13, 2012

How would this work? I thought magnetic levitation is a short range force, yet they are proposing holding up a track that is 12 miles off the ground? I just dont get that part, maybe someone else knows and can fill me in.


Well, the first thing that comes to mind is a similiar to how you construct tensioned concrete arches and overhangs. Concrete cannot take tension, so it cannot flex without fracturing, so you add tensioned steel wire to keep it under constant compression instead and presto, now you can extend a thin concrete beam without breaking it because it's always under compression even when it's being bent.

Here the problem is opposite. You have a long thin structure, which will buckle like a wet noodle under compression as it tries to hold something up, so you have to build it so that the material is under constant tension instead, and that's where the magnets come in. They can be used to stretch the material to keep it rigid.

Like a long party balloon really.
Eikka
3.2 / 5 (9) Mar 13, 2012
The real answer:

The magnetic interaction between a cable current of 100 Megamps (1 Megamp = 1 million Amps) on the ground and a cable current of 40 Megamps at 70,000 feet will produce a levitation force of 4 tons per meter of cable length.
javjav
4.3 / 5 (6) Mar 13, 2012
"While the track would be securely tethered to the ground, it would be held in mid-air completely by magnetic levitation"
How would this work? I thought magnetic levitation is a short range force,

It seems they plan to do it by brute force. This is from their website ( http://www.startr...chnology ):

"..With the advent of superconducting cables being developed for superconducting power grids, it is now possible to construct cables which can carry hundreds of megamps of current. These amperages are sufficient to supply a levitating force of 4 tons per meter of startram guideway, even when the conductors are separated by 20km..."

In any case, stage one (mountain attached, no levitation) may worth it today. Even if you send the astronauts in chemical rockets to LEO, the ability to launch "unlimited" payloads in acheap way would make the difference for 90% missions (Except space tourism). And the budget they need is extremely smaller than NASA Heavy Lift S.
krundoloss
2 / 5 (2) Mar 13, 2012
Ok, well if this levitation force acts at such a distance (20 kilometers!), that sounds great! What would the long term cost be to constantly keep these tracks levitated? Or could they be levitated when needed, then back to the ground when not needed?
infinite_energy
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 13, 2012
If you run straight superconducting cables between major cities and also run a superconducting cable inside an airplane we might be able to levitate the whole plane. A 4 tons/meter levitating force is enough to lift most of the commercial airplanes in the sky.
Cool.
hyongx
3.5 / 5 (10) Mar 13, 2012
1000 mile magnetically levitated track enveloped in a vacuum tunnel?!?!
*huge rip from crackpipe*
WHAT A GREAT IDEA!!!!
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (4) Mar 13, 2012
hyongx
2.4 / 5 (5) Mar 13, 2012
Sandia National Laboratories ... found no obvious flaws.

Go government funding!!!!
CuriousMan
4.8 / 5 (4) Mar 13, 2012
How much energy would it use?
Just_some_guy
5 / 5 (9) Mar 13, 2012
Even a momentary power outage would bring the whole thing crashing to the ground...
javjav
4.3 / 5 (3) Mar 13, 2012
Even a momentary power outage would bring the whole thing crashing to the ground...


Yes, it would be scary if there is a blackout when you are travelling at 30.000 km/h trough the tube... I think no escape system is possible, too much deadly G forces as soon as you crash into the low atmosphere at that speed
ShotmanMaslo
2 / 5 (4) Mar 13, 2012
Description of leviation system from Startram site:

It's easy to levitate objects electromagnetically. If you push enough current through two conductors in opposite directions, the conductors will be subject to a force pushing them apart. The more current the greater the force. With the advent of superconducting cables being developed for superconducting power grids, it is now possible to construct cables which can carry hundreds of megamps of current. These amperages are sufficient to supply a levitating force of 4 tons per meter of startram guideway, even when the conductors are separated by 20km.


http://www.startr...chnology
ShotmanMaslo
1 / 5 (2) Mar 13, 2012
I'd think a hybrid system might be a safer and more easily engineered option. If a rail could get the payload up to several hundred MPH and at an upward angle a smaller and possibly reusable booster could propel the load up to orbit. Being smaller the launch facility would also be more secure and easier to maintain. a 1000 kilometer rail system is simply too open to security, environmental and maintenance issues - especially if a large portion were "levitated".


Hybrid system does not make much sense, because it is simpler and cheaper to just make the propellant tank a little bigger instead - and then we end up with ordinary rocket. So unless our maglev track provides at least a few km/s of speed, it is not really worth it.
Xbw
2.7 / 5 (7) Mar 13, 2012
I would think that it would make more sense to bury the tunnel far below the ground and gradually increase the height moving down a mountain range, say..the Rockies for example. The craft would have to be shielded against friction against the atmosphere outside the tunnel of course but I imagine this would be more plausible than a track on enormous stilts.
Eikka
4.8 / 5 (5) Mar 13, 2012
Even a momentary power outage would bring the whole thing crashing to the ground...


Considering that the cables are superconducting, you can pretty much connect them end to end in a loop, and the current will flow through without loss indefinitely, or at least as long as you keep them cold. Many devices, like extremely sensitive gravity meters that suspend weights with a magnet use such loops, and they've basically maintained magnetic fields with current that was induced decades ago.

Only thing to worry about would be geomagnetic storms, because they can induce more current until the superconductor saturates, or drain the current from the loop via induction, and the interaction with the magnetic dipole would probably generate some significant torque to the system.
axemaster
not rated yet Mar 13, 2012
The magnetic interaction between a cable current of 100 Megamps (1 Megamp = 1 million Amps) on the ground and a cable current of 40 Megamps at 70,000 feet will produce a levitation force of 4 tons per meter of cable length.

Not to be cynical, but is it even possible to do that kind of current, at all? I mean if you had unlimited money and resources, would that be possible?
Silverhill
5 / 5 (2) Mar 13, 2012
Although mass drivers commonly appear in science fiction and a few other concepts have been proposed, none has yet been built.
Not to a large scale, no -- but O'Neill built the first working model in 1977. Larger ones have been built since, and continue to be in development.
RitchieGuy
1.5 / 5 (6) Mar 13, 2012
There was a similar idea in an old movie from the 1950s, "When Worlds Collide". The track was on a long downslope, that gradually leveled out, and then gradually climbed an upslope of a tall mountain where the track became vertical. Kind of like this: \____/ but without sharp angles. The ship itself would have used rocket fuel though. Another old movie, even older, ""The Shape of Things To Come" from the 1930s had the rocketship shot out of an underground cannon. Both were interesting concepts.
jkubby
4.7 / 5 (3) Mar 13, 2012
"Although mass drivers commonly appear in science fiction and a few other concepts have been proposed, none has yet been built."

We built a working mass driver in Gerald K. O'Neill's lab at Princeton in 1980.
RitchieGuy
1.6 / 5 (7) Mar 13, 2012
The magnetic interaction between a cable current of 100 Megamps (1 Megamp = 1 million Amps) on the ground and a cable current of 40 Megamps at 70,000 feet will produce a levitation force of 4 tons per meter of cable length.

Not to be cynical, but is it even possible to do that kind of current, at all? I mean if you had unlimited money and resources, would that be possible?


It would probably require the same amount of electricity enough to power a small city. A nuclear power plant would produce the needed reliable electrical requirements, IMO
Nick_Name
5 / 5 (3) Mar 13, 2012
Check out the latest rail gun for the US Navy to see the principle in action http://www.youtub..._rRicAwI
I can see using a mountain slope for support, but for launch efficiency reasons it would have to be done in the Andes near the equator. The extrapolation to levitation in air is pure science fiction. The mentioned forces are all parallel to the projectile path (they provide the launch force). They do nothing to hold anything up in the air. Besides, 1000 miles of track, sloped to 12 miles in the air??? It's infeasible from an engineering standpoint, and impossible from a financial one. The quoted costs lack any amortization of capital costs, no overhead costs, no profit, and no interest rate on borrowed funds. Take the $20 billion up front cost, divide by, say 6000 launches per year and 30 years, and you still have a per shot amortization of >$100,000 to recover construction costs alone. This article is stupid in the extreme, No scientist wrote it!
BikeToAustralia
1 / 5 (1) Mar 13, 2012
Yes, it is an old idea, I think the black and white drawing is Jules Verne. Being an old idea, the numbers and challenges to face have been gone over many times.

What I like: electromechanical propulsion, versatile - capable of pushing all kinds of things out into space, has to be international to avoid being used as a weapon, inexpensive and (best of all) will inspire new ideas and materials and international cooperation.
rbrtwjohnson
not rated yet Mar 13, 2012
Launchers based upon medieval Trebuchet catapults, cannons, and slingshots, can be very engagingly at first glance, but I think they will be very expensive and inelegant. On the other hand, plasma turbine, which is similar to a maglev train, comparable to the linear AC motor, is to be more affordable and will require less structure because it uses Earth's atmosphere as its lane. http://www.youtub...xPghXTCg
SteveL
not rated yet Mar 13, 2012
I wonder what kind of extraneous currents would be induced from earth's poloidal geomagnetic field into two widely separated 1000k long conductors when variations in solar wind and the interplanetary magnetic field force our magnetosphere to expand and contract.
Modernmystic
2.6 / 5 (7) Mar 13, 2012
Look, we got to the moon a hundred years before we were "supposed to" via a political pissing contest. What they are talking about here would be obsolete by the time it was built. Technology is moving faster than that. Better to wait for mature nanotechnology and build space elevators on the equator.

Mature nanotechnology won't just solve the high costs of space transport, it will solve virtually every human problem from poverty to the environment overnight. Granted it has the potential to introduce a host of other "problems" too, but that's who we are. Reality doesn't negotiate, it simply is. The only question is are we moving forward or backward (they didn't call it the dark ages because the sun dimmed). To stand still is death, and moreover impossible....
Urgelt
4 / 5 (2) Mar 13, 2012
Uh... to get passenger costs down so low, you'd have to send a *lot* of passengers into low-Earth orbit. A 60-billion dollar system costing billions per year to launch tens of thousands of passengers into LEO just isn't what we need right now.

What we need now is cargo launches to deliver robots and waldoes to destinations where there is mass for them to use to construct habitats, greenhouses, fuel depots, all that happy stuff we'll need to send people to moons, large asteroids and Mars.

Even then, the requirement for people lifting is likely to be on the order of dozens per year, not tens of thousands. Conventional lift for humans will be more economical.

We've got to use automation, robotics and waldo technology first; otherwise there is nowhere for humans to go.

I can go for a mass driver on a mountainside for ten billion. That's cheap, for what it can deliver to space for us. But the huge levitating 60 billion dollar passenger thingee is absurd.
CapitalismPrevails
1 / 5 (4) Mar 13, 2012
Why not have inflatable balloons attached to the maglev tracks and then have CNT cables stabilizing the track from the ground at a diagonal angle several miles out. Still lofty but it seems more feasible than levitation.
Cave_Man
1.5 / 5 (2) Mar 14, 2012
I know people say magnetic fields have no effect on people but jeeze what would a mega amp magnetic field do to a person at close range?

Magnetize your red blood cells?

Electrify a copper wire (i know this is not possible the charge would be tiny but still)

Or heck if you were wearing a steel belt buckle wouldnt it be attracted to the cable with enough force to break your spine?

Not to mention how creating a huge magnetic field inside the earths magnetic field will alter things in ways we wont understand until we do it.

Grallen
not rated yet Mar 14, 2012
This was kind of complicated to judge whether this is a good idea or not. So I did the math.

http://www.satmag...49759337
"Satellite Launch Services market grew from US$2.7 billion to US$3.2 billion from 2006 to 2007" So growth is around 18.5% per year. So lets assume that they didn't start construction until 2013 and then take 10 year to build 2023.

By 2023, the SLS launch market might be about 48 billion.
With no growth since 2007 it would be 3.2 billion.

This launcher will cost $20 billion to build and reduce the cost of a launching anything from $10k per kg of payload to $50 per kg of payload. That is a saving of 99.5% after construction.

Launch saving cost per year (after 10 years invested):
- If growth remained consistent: 45.6 billion
- With no growth: 3.04 billion

RIO:
The 20 billion would not be up front. It would be more like 2 billion per year.

More...
Grallen
4 / 5 (1) Mar 14, 2012
A bank will want a ROI of about 5% per year, though governments or corporations wouldn't pay this much.
Project debt at end of year(billions):
1: 2.1
2: 4.31
3: 6.62
4: 9.05
5: 11.60
6: 14.28
7: 17.10
8: 20.05
9: 23.16
10: 26.41 (Completed)
11: 29.83
If growth was steady The project pay off it's debt and saves 17 billion extra in it's first year of operation. ROI met after one year of operation.

There is the change of delays and cost over runs, competition(not only one built), and that growth isn't as strong as it was 2006-2007 every year. But these possible issues still wouldn't make this anything short of an amazing investment for any corporation or nation.

I wouldn't be surprised if we hear of this project being started in the the next couple years(after secondary investigations are performed by interested parties are completed).
nuge
not rated yet Mar 14, 2012
I was impressed by the low cost, but also a little skeptical.
SteveL
5 / 5 (3) Mar 14, 2012
I know people say magnetic fields have no effect on people but jeeze what would a mega amp magnetic field do to a person at close range?
Faraday cage for higher frequencies. Same technique allows you to watch your food being cooked in a microwave oven without being cooked yourself. For low frequencies you would need a Mu-metal, Permalloy or other permeable material. But as they article specifically brings up the use of superconducting materials, the payload container should also be made of superconducting materials which can provide magnetic shielding via the Meissner effect.

How would any human survive the G-forces from launch...?!
I suppose the same way humans survive any launch. Anyone who would be preparing for launch into space would need to be in good condition to handle the G-forces involved. Still, the 1000k long tube described for human travel would not require that much force.
betterexists
1 / 5 (3) Mar 18, 2012
Rather this great technology should be used to toss well packaged goods across the earth from east to west vice versa making sure that there will be well placed shock absorbers in the oceans to prevent any environmental damage or damage to the inhabitants of the oceans.

Just KISS GOODBYE TO SHIPS!
dschlink
5 / 5 (1) Mar 18, 2012
A Lofstrom loop overcomes several of the objections here: the loop is held up by the inertia of the moving cylinders in the loop. The energy stored in the loop is high enough to keep the loop suspended during an extended loss of power. The vehicles launch by coupling magnetically to the cylinders. On return they again couple and transfer energy back into the loop.

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