Emerging technologies may fuel revolutionary horizontal space launcher

September 12, 2010 by Steve Siceloff, JPL/NASA

This artist's concept shows a potential design for a rail-launched aircraft and spacecraft that could revolutionize the launch business. Early designs envision a 2-mile-long track at Kennedy Space Center shooting a Mach 10-capable carrier aircraft to the upper reaches of the atmosphere. then a second stage booster would fire to lift a satellite or spacecraft into orbit. Credit: NASA/Artist concept
(PhysOrg.com) -- As NASA studies possibilities for the next launcher to the stars, a team of engineers from Kennedy Space Center and several other field centers are looking for a system that turns a host of existing cutting-edge technologies into the next giant leap spaceward.

An early proposal has emerged that calls for a wedge-shaped aircraft with scramjets to be launched horizontally on an electrified track or gas-powered sled. The aircraft would fly up to Mach 10, using the scramjets and wings to lift it to the upper reaches of the atmosphere where a small canister or capsule similar to a rocket's second stage would fire off the back of the aircraft and into orbit. The aircraft would come back and land on a runway by the launch site.

Engineers also contend the system, with its advanced technologies, will benefit the nation's high-tech industry by perfecting technologies that would make more efficient commuter rail systems, better batteries for cars and trucks, and numerous other spinoffs.

It might read as the latest in a series of science fiction articles, but NASA's Stan Starr, branch chief of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Kennedy, points out that nothing in the design calls for brand-new technology to be developed. However, the system counts on a number of existing technologies to be pushed forward.

"All of these are technology components that have already been developed or studied," Starr said. "We're just proposing to mature these technologies to a useful level, well past the level they've already been taken."

For example, electric tracks catapult rollercoaster riders daily at theme parks. But those tracks call for speeds of a relatively modest 60 mph -- enough to thrill riders, but not nearly fast enough to launch something into space. The would need to reach at least 10 times that speed over the course of two miles in Starr's proposal.

The good news is that NASA and universities already have done significant research in the field, including small-scale tracks at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and at Kennedy. The Navy also has designed a similar catapult system for its aircraft carriers.

Different technologies to push a spacecraft down a long rail have been tested in several settings, including this Magnetic Levitation (MagLev) System evaluated at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Engineers have a number of options to choose from as their designs progress. Photo credit: NASA

As far as the aircraft that would launch on the rail, there already are real-world tests for designers to draw on. The X-43A, or Hyper-X program, and X-51 have shown that scramjets will work and can achieve remarkable speeds.

The group sees NASA's field centers taking on their traditional roles to develop the Advanced Space Launch System. For instance, Langley Research Center in Virginia, Glenn Research Center in Ohio and Ames Research Center in California would work on different elements of the hypersonic aircraft. Dryden Research Center in California, Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and Marshall would join Kennedy in developing the launch rail network. Kennedy also would build a launch test bed, potentially in a two-mile long area parallel to the crawlerway leading to Launch Pad 39A.

Because the system calls for a large role in aeronautic advancement along with rocketry, Starr said, "essentially you bring together parts of NASA that aren't usually brought together. I still see Kennedy's core role as a launch and landing facility."

The Advanced Space Launch System is not meant to replace the space shuttle or other program in the near future, but could be adapted to carry astronauts after unmanned missions rack up successes, Starr said.

The studies and development program could also be used as a basis for a commercial launch program if a company decides to take advantage of the basic research performs along the way. Starr said NASA's fundamental research has long spurred aerospace industry advancement, a trend that the advanced system could continue.

For now, the team proposed a 10-year plan that would start with launching a drone like those the Air Force uses. More advanced models would follow until they are ready to build one that can launch a small satellite into orbit.

A rail launcher study using gas propulsion already is under way, but the team is applying for funding under several areas, including NASA's push for technology innovation, but the engineers know it may not come to pass. The effort is worth it, however, since there is a chance at revolutionizing launches.

"It's not very often you get to work on a major technology revolution," Starr said.

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Sep 12, 2010
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5 / 5 (13) Sep 12, 2010
I think i speak for all when i say: build it, build it, build it
3.7 / 5 (12) Sep 12, 2010
This technology could finally unlock the solar system for humanity. Get to low Earth orbit, and you are halfway to anywhere..
not rated yet Sep 12, 2010
Does this mean we don't have to wait for the space-elevator before we can build more advanced spacestations and shipyards?
5 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2010
Anyone notice the similarity of the vehicle in the second photo and the SR-71 Blackbird? Hmmmm....

not rated yet Sep 12, 2010
IMHO, you could build a fleet of Reaction Engine's Skylons for the cost of this launcher...
not rated yet Sep 12, 2010
with a space fountain built such systems would seem an anthill
4.8 / 5 (4) Sep 12, 2010
What about air friction in the lower atmosphere? Why not launch vertically? You'd get out of the lower atmosphere sooner, or is more time needed to ignite the scram jets?
2.3 / 5 (6) Sep 12, 2010
What about air friction in the lower atmosphere? Why not launch vertically? You'd get out of the lower atmosphere sooner, or is more time needed to ignite the scram jets?

The half stage is a very efficient lift vehicle. It doesn't have to carry its oxidizer.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 12, 2010
The Skylon seems a rather elegant solution if they can get it to work

Sep 12, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
5 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2010
Perhaps they should rename it "XL5"

4.8 / 5 (6) Sep 12, 2010
Id love to see something like this built but ive seen it all before NASA publishes awasome renders of a half way decent reusable system and it never happens. NASA and congress have no vision or application like they used to, it took ten years to get to the moon nowadays you cant get 2 years of consistent funding for anything(especially if it doesnt work perfectly first time). Back when the shuttle was conceived the competitor design was a two stage to orbit fully reuseable concept(more expensive up front but cheaper overall) but it didnt happen because the major rocket makers cant get past disposable rockets and lobby hard to keep stupid wasteful concepts going.

The same will happen to this. No consistent vision + no consistent funding + weak willed politicians = no final frontier for the US (or anyone else by extension)till the space elevator comes along(fingers crossed it will anyway). Sad but this will never happen.
Sep 12, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
4.2 / 5 (5) Sep 13, 2010
Unfortunately, "slaveunit" is correct. The U.S. will not return to space in any meaningful way. We will have to sit on our hands and watch the Chinese and Indians as they compete to colonize the Moon and Mars. Maybe they will let some of our people go along for a ride.
3.7 / 5 (6) Sep 13, 2010
The U.S. will not return to space in any meaningful way. We will have to sit on our hands and watch the Chinese and Indians as they compete to colonize the Moon and Mars.

Possibly, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the US would up the ante if another nation got a serious advantage over it in space (for defense reasons, if not for visionary ones. And of course, if it isn't bankrupt by then).
5 / 5 (1) Sep 13, 2010
Yeah, nothing was built to replace the space shuttle. That is the problem.
Sep 13, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
5 / 5 (6) Sep 13, 2010
Why carry fuel on board as dead weight for the initial 0 to 600mph acceletation? A tracked launcer makes sense because the energy for this can come from an of board source. Scram jets reduce onboard weight further as they carry no oxygen but colect it on the way. Once you've paid for the high initial capital investment of the track economics make this a cheap way into space.
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 13, 2010
IMHO, the future of space travel (and the idea presented in this article) is private/commercial development, not NASA or any governmental effort. Given the proper financial incentive (potential profit to be made), private industry could get this done far faster and more efficiently than any NASA effort. A 10 year plan - heck, this could be done in less than 5 years with proper motivation, even faster if the future of humanity depended upon it. NASA would just milk the taxpayers for as much money as they could before finally delivering - or telling us they need more money or it will be abandoned!
1.4 / 5 (9) Sep 13, 2010
NASA needs to follow through on its primary mission of outreach to Islamic nations to make them feel better. Needless to say, my hopes of NASA being at the forefront of any technologies has diminished rapidly the last 2 years and for the next 2 at least. Clueless "leadership" from the top down I'm afraid.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 13, 2010
Surely it would be less expensive if the take off sled was powered by jet engines?
Six hundred miles an hour is no problem for a jet. Even go back to the Kerry space idea of having a spacecraft towed by one or more aircraft.
not rated yet Sep 13, 2010
Sorry, I don't see how this launcher tech is cutting edge research. The Shanghai maglev has routinely used this exact same technology to go 500 km/hr since 2003.
5 / 5 (3) Sep 13, 2010
I personally liked the idea of a sled powered by maglev. A small nuclear plant could produce the energy needed for it, and when the track isn't powered it could just feed energy into the grid. But, that's just me, I guess I'm a bit enamoured with high speed maglev trains.
4.2 / 5 (5) Sep 13, 2010
Sorry, I don't see how this launcher tech is cutting edge research. The Shanghai maglev has routinely used this exact same technology to go 500 km/hr since 2003.

The use of the word "routinely" is not justified. 501 km/hr is the top speed but during commercial operation it only reaches 431 km/hr. It takes 2 minutes to accelerate to 350 km/hr, and at that rate it would cover 12 km while accelerating to 501 km/hr. The proposed aircraft would need to accelerate to a minimum of 966 km/hr (getting uncomfortably close to the speed of sound) over just 3 km. This is an acceleration rate an order of magnitude larger than your maglev.
5 / 5 (3) Sep 13, 2010
NASA needs to follow through on its primary mission of outreach to Islamic nations to make them feel better. Needless to say, my hopes of NASA being at the forefront of any technologies has diminished rapidly the last 2 years and for the next 2 at least. Clueless "leadership" from the top down I'm afraid.

Since when is NASA's mission involve impressing other countries? It was started to beat Russia technology wise, and later to get us to the moon first, but declaring its function to outreaching to islamic nations is just plain silly.
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 14, 2010
Fuey. We have good lift mechanisms. We have reusable boosters. Build everything on the ground, in liftable packages and assemble in space.
We wasted a lot of time and money on the shuttles. Yes we learned, but we learned that unmanned boosters are better at getting bulk into space.
Based upon what I've read, the scram jet is a LONG way in the future, as far as earth to space goes. The Air Force is flying them. Last I heard, they were launched on the end of a rocket and fired up at high altitude. Longest burn? Seconds, not minutes.
2.5 / 5 (2) Sep 18, 2010
you know what to make it cheap, outsource the rocket to the russians, outsource the crew to somalia and have an outsourced helpdesk in India to handle the scripted phonecall if the oxygen supply fails (that is, if the queues aren't filled by angry Dell customers), large shiny NASA and USA bumperstickers, made in china offcoase, could be put on the outsourced rocket to give it a sense of national achievement.
1 / 5 (2) Sep 19, 2010
Maybe instead of thinking of gee wiz technologies looking for a problem maybe we need to have a need for it first in the first place and I can't think of any current technological needs that can't be met by current launch systems. Communication satellites? Got em. Observatories? Got em. Weather/observation satellites? Got em. Navigation? Got em. Even with current launch technologies the systems that are going up are getting better and better. First one or 2 TV channels on a "TV satellite". now hundreds of channels with probably many millions of comm traffic connections made every day. In the future maybe thousands of entertainment feeds and maybe billions of comm channels. all this for using the same launch technologies. lets say that your newfangled launch technology triples launch weight capacity per dollar spent, you've just tripled your capacity. BUT in retrospect it's not much compared for the multiples of 10s if not 100s that we've already gotten by refining earth based tech.
3 / 5 (1) Sep 19, 2010
There seems to be a step missing. I don't think they'll be able to ignite scramjets at subsonic speeds.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 19, 2010
It is a dead end science that does not imperil extant power structures that exist today... so of course investigation and promise of this emerging into something useful..will continue.

It is a virtual cock tease for forward looking people who do not understand the shape and origins of these intricate freedom traps.

Just like any 50 dead ends, that anyone with a few minutes of time on the net can list... those dead ends that 'somehow' never worked out, the plethora that came before this one.

i'm not cynical, I'm a realist with regard to to extant power structures.

You can't control a society if they have control of their energy, communications(religion, press ,etc) and their finances.

All three have to be nailed down, as they are right now.

Public and individual control of any of these by the individual or public at large, leads inexorably to erosion of corporate and elitist control of society. Thus, multi-pronged attacks on real solutions, and eagerly proffered dead ends.
not rated yet Sep 19, 2010
Since when is the space program about freedom? If we pretend it isn't important we will outsource it because we won't have a choice. Sure, we have satellites, but they will wear out. We can make do with unmanned equipment, but in the end it makes us losers. This is something we need to be in front of, not trying to catch up on. Lack of knowledge and imagination isn't a good excuse. There are sound military reasons to maintain a space program, but if you can't follow that then there really isn't any hope.
5 / 5 (2) Sep 19, 2010
1. Launch in the same direction as the earth turns and as close as possible to the equator. That gives approx. 1000 mph for free.

2. Build the ramp up the side of a high mountain. When the vehicle leaves the ramp it will be at approx. 13,000+ ft. altitude.

3. Choose a place such as Hawaii where there are multiple green energy sources for the maglev rails:
a. Wind
b. Solar
c. Geothermal
d. Wave

4. A glance at a globe will reveal many suitable sites with Hawaii having the advantage of being on friendly terms with the US.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 20, 2010
I was about to say something close to what you said YawningDog. Hawaii... Maui to be exact. I drove up the road to the top of the mountain and its basically all ready there. Just add jet engines to a freight truck and repave to take the forces..
1 / 5 (4) Sep 20, 2010
I wonder if approach is better than that used by Space Ship One, where another aircraft lifts the rocket up high in the atmosphere where it then rockets into space. Seems to me it's an expensive approach to get a scram jet with lots of fuel into the air, so that it can get higher into the atmosphere (and how much higher I've no idea, but obviously there's less air higher in the atmosphere for a scram jet to use).

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