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NASA engineers are developing a radical new form of launch that begins aboard an electrified track similar to that of a rollercoaster.  (Source: NASA)

The sled would then fling a scramjet into the air, which would activate and rocket to the upper atmosphere. Once in the upper atmosphere, the scramjet would fire a capsule launch vehicle into space as the final step.  (Source: NASA/Artist concept)
New launch system could be used for manned launches and satellite launches

NASA's budget may be cut, but that hasn't stopped the first international organization to put a man on the Moon from dreaming big.  One key question the agency is looking at is what the next big thing in space propulsion will be.  NASA and foreign space agencies have examined plasma enginesion enginesnuclear-powered designs, and solar sails, but these technologies lack the impulse and thrust to accelerate a launch vehicle into orbit. 

However, NASA's latest proposal may be the most creative idea of them all and has the potential to be relatively affordable.  The new proposal starts by placing a sled on electric tracks -- NASA's sled needs to reach a whopping 600 mph (appr. 1,000 km/h).

At the end of the track, the passenger vehicle, which rests atop the sled, will be flung off, launching at extreme speed.  The passenger vehicle would be a wedge-shaped aircraft, with scramjets aboard, which would activate upon launch.  Those scramjets would accelerate the aircraft to Mach 10.

Wings would gradually angle the craft into the Earth's upper atmosphere.  At the boundaries of the Earth's atmosphere, the scramjet would fire the actual spacecraft -- a capsule.  The maneuver would be akin to firing a round out of a barrel

By using mechanical motion to launch the craft, instead of expensive chemical boosters, the cost of launches could dramatically decrease.

NASA's Stan Starr, branch chief of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, says the technology to achieve this type of launch isn't that far away.  In a released statement, he explains, "All of these are technology components that have already been developed or studied.  We're just proposing to mature these technologies to a useful level, well past the level they've already been taken.  Essentially you bring together parts of NASA that aren't usually brought together."

Engineers at NASA and the U.S. Air Force have worked on a variety of scramjet projects thus far, including the X-43A and X-51 (a missile design).  So far these programs have had a couple of successful launches and tests under their belt, raising hopes that the technology can soon be applied to projects like the launcher.

Mr. Starr and other NASA engineers have assembled a proposal to build the system, which they're dubbing the Advanced Space Launch System.  They're seeking grants from a variety of sources.

Under the plan Langley Research Center in Virginia, Glenn Research Center in Ohio, and Ames Research Center in California would build and test the parts of the hypersonic aircraft.  Dryden Research Center in California, Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and Marshall, along with the Kennedy Space Center would engineer the rail track.  The plan calls for an actual two-mile long test track to be laid down parallel to the crawlway that the Shuttle used to be transported along to Launch Pad 39A.  Mr. Starr comments, "I still see Kennedy's core role as a launch and landing facility."

The 10-year plan for the launch platform calls for the program to begin with launching small drones -- like those used by the Air Force -- into orbit.  This would be followed by satellite launches.  If all goes according to plan, the system could eventually be used for low-cost manned mission launches, as well.

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Jumping to Conclusions
By FormulaRedline on 9/15/2010 12:44:43 PM , Rating: 2
Unfortunately I think DT has filled in some gaps in information from the NASA release and has created a misleading article. If the rail is only capable of acceleration to 600mph, the vehicle cannot be powered by a scramjet. A ramjet works by compressing (decelerating) supersonic airflow to subsonic airflow for combustion, a scramjet is similiar but the air is still supersonic (usually being decelerated from hypersonic speeds) during combustion. DT's claimed 600 mph of the launcher is well under even Mach 1 (~760mph at ground level), the scramjet would not light.

RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By mcnabney on 9/15/2010 1:11:17 PM , Rating: 3
The DT text combined some comments from the linked NASA article to get to that 600mph number. The scientist referenced that current accelerators are used on rollercoasters and that those rides run at velocities like 60mph. Later it is mentioned that NASA would be working on accelerators that would need to be at least 10x faster than current uses. Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point goes 120mph, 10x that is approaching mach 2 at sea-level.

I am actually really excited about this. Using electricity for initial acceleration and SCRAM after that is extremely energy efficient. It is also much safer due to the lack of oxidizer required, isolated fuel systems, and the ability to use the atmosphere to help support the weight of the craft instead of fighting it (along with gravity) when a rocket is used.

Combine that with a simple reusable launch vehicle and we are on the road to the commercialization of space. Space vehicles will look different though. I envision long, needlelike spaceplanes.

RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By mas6700 on 9/15/2010 1:21:30 PM , Rating: 2
Totally agree. When I worked on the inlet flow analysis for the NASP (National Aerospace Plane), back in the 1980's, I seem to recall the free stream Mach was well above Mach 5 before the vehicle went into SCRAMJET mode. So there's no way the vehicle in this article is going to be using SCRAMJETs to fly off the ground. That's ridiculous.

Speaking of which, what kind of passengers are going to be on a vehicle that accelerates from 0 to 600 mph in a space of two miles? Is that realistic? Seems like it would be a lot of G's. Then again, maybe not since dragsters can get to 300 mph in a 1/4 mile...

RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By bupkus on 9/15/2010 2:37:00 PM , Rating: 3
Interesting that NASA would essentially be using roller-coaster design software to measure g-forces in the upward curve from an initial horizontal track. Can you imagine at speeds of over 600 mph the force on the track not to mention one's brain against one's brain-pan directing this object upwards? Obviously, the ideal angle would be perpendicular to the earth's surface for the quickest escape from dense air friction but that would require quite a tall structure.

Imagine now the commercial and fun benefits in some really awesome new rollercoasters. ;) NASAcoasters! Now at 6 Flags!

RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By JediJeb on 9/16/2010 3:07:50 PM , Rating: 2
Obviously, the ideal angle would be perpendicular to the earth's surface for the quickest escape from dense air friction but that would require quite a tall structure.

Since the launch vehicle would be a lifting body using Scramjets you wouldn't need to go verticle at the end of the electric assist platform. A long smooth curve upwards to something over 45 degrees should work ok and not put all the g forces on the vehicle at the last moment.

RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By Jaybus on 9/15/2010 2:41:05 PM , Rating: 5
For a constant acceleration of 2 G (20 m/s^2), it would take 13.9 s to reach a velocity of 278 m/s. The distance traveled, given a constant acceleration, is d = 0.5 * (Vf - Vi) / t. Vi is zero, Vf is 278 m/s, and t is 13.9 s, so d is 1932 m. So for a 2 mile track, the acceleration could be a good bit less than 2 G.

BTW, top fuel dragsters reach accelerations of nearly 6 G.

RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By FormulaRedline on 9/15/2010 3:39:01 PM , Rating: 5
It's a good thing engineers do calculations instead of "listening" to the guy who said it "sounds" like a lot of G's.

RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By AssBall on 9/15/2010 4:47:05 PM , Rating: 2
Build the accelerator up the side of Hawaii. Make it ten miles long, and it will have a rise of say 2.5 miles. Make it a maglev to reduce friction (screw rails and wheels).

Most people who can pass a physical for a shuttle or soyuz trip can take 6-7G okay (more with respirators).

The advantages:

-you are close to the equator (get more centrifugal help from rotation).
-you have less air resistance the further you go up the mountain.
-you are already headed upwards 22 degrees at rail exit.

Given constant acceleration (and it isn't, of course) at say 8g, they would be going mach6 at the end. Unless I completely jacked up my math as usual.

-would need excessive power to operate.
-designing a ten mile accelerator over rough terrain and a several ton vehicle that can handle 3000 mph+ stabily.
-did I mention power? Dedicate a small nuclear facility.

Superconducting rails would be great for the messier effect, but they are even more power hungry once you cool them and expensive to build/operate.

RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By Manch on 9/15/2010 5:10:05 PM , Rating: 2
why not build near the poles. the troposphere is higher at the equator. 12 miles vs 4+. Does the centrifugal force overcome the amount of atmosphere that must be pushed trhu? If anyone knows the answer or a link post it.


RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By AssBall on 9/15/2010 8:28:18 PM , Rating: 2
Launching from the poles would put you in a weird ass orbit though.

RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By roadhog1974 on 9/15/2010 8:43:53 PM , Rating: 2
Gravity might get you down.

RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By tng on 9/15/2010 10:10:57 PM , Rating: 2
Yes it is better to get to orbit from the equator. If I remember correctly it has to do with the earths spin and that is one of the reasons that the launch facilities are in Florida. I think that the EU space agency launches are done somewhere in South America for that reason, it takes less energy to launch into orbit there.

Also the suggestion of a Mag Lev system is good. Right now the best example of this is the train from the Shanghai Airport to the downtown area. It reaches about 300mph (not quite sure about the top speed) and they were going to extend it for several hundred miles until the cost of just what they built almost bankrupted them.

RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By marvdmartian on 9/16/2010 9:32:56 AM , Rating: 1
Ah, but if your track is like a loose corkscrew shape, then you can still get the effect of Earth's spin assisting, as well as directing your ship in any direction you want at launch, which might actually assist in putting it into orbit.

I'd keep it down at the South Pole, though, for a number of reasons:
1. "Global Warming" seems to be having a lesser effect in the Antarctic, and the cold air might actually make it easier to cool your superconductive magnetics
2. You're actually building on ice on top of land, instead of on top of water, so it's likely to be more stable (especially if this whole "global warming" thing is true!!)
3. Accidentally hitting a penguin that roams onto the tracks will be much less detrimental to the system than hitting a polar bear. They're having a tough enough time as it is, why give them more to stress about??
4. Less chance that we'll piss off Santa Claus!! ;)

RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By AssBall on 9/17/2010 3:33:02 PM , Rating: 1

The diameter of a spinning object is directly responsible for the centrifugal force. So unless your cork screw is the diameter of the earth....

Also you need extra energy to get something up to speed on a curve, and the track and object take in a lot of extra force stress. Oh, and logistics of setting up an accelerator at the poles is a bitch.

RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By ninjaquick on 9/17/2010 6:41:37 PM , Rating: 2
Unicorns in Narnia are to blame for Centrifugal force, here on earth we are subject to centripetal forces which hold us in a constant loop until we decide exert energy away from the center, spinning does not cause us to go further out. Inside a centrifuge the pressure felt pushing you out is actually a result of your body having a outwards "acceleration (actual constant velocity) that is equal to that of the rotation velocity and radius of the centrifuge with a high angle of exit as your body's inertia makes your frame tend to move in a straight line which is impeded by the wall behind you. This is what helps create a slingshot effect when an object approaches a high center of gravity, enters orbit which decays, increasing forward momentum which ultimately results in a high speed low angle exit.
Thanks to the high rotational radius of Earth at its equator, there is less centripetal force to be contended with which allows for an easier escape from earth's gravity. Dun?

RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By tng on 9/16/2010 11:48:18 AM , Rating: 3
OK found this which explains why it is better to launch from the equator
equatorial launches give spacecraft an extra 'push' of nearly 500 m/s due to the higher rotation velocity of someone standing on the equator than near the Earth's axis where rotation velocity approaches nil.

RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By Spookster on 9/16/2010 1:29:28 PM , Rating: 2
They can just borrow some inertial dampeners from Stargate command.

RE: Jumping to Conclusions
By johnsonx on 9/16/2010 1:50:32 AM , Rating: 2
I seem to recall an article on DT some months back about a new ramjet/scramjet hybrid engine design that essentially works both ways.

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