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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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Well, let's see...
By chromatix on 9/15/2010 3:24:27 PM , Rating: 4
...clearly it won't be a scramjet at sea level. But NASA generally doesn't suggest doing things that are totally impossible. They're too smart for that.

So, just maybe, they can make an engine that's a normal ramjet at transonic-to-supersonic speeds, and can accelerate the vehicle from launch velocity and sea level to Mach whatever at altitude.

*Then* it can go into scramjet mode, accelerate to some crazy speed, and go ballistic for maximum apogee.

*Then* it brings the on-board mass-driver into play, which imparts even more velocity to the payload. If that's not enough for LEO, add an ordinary boost rocket to that.

The launch vehicle will fall back into the atmosphere. Since it's already at suborbital energy and has wings, recovery and reuse should be feasible.

RE: Well, let's see...
By FormulaRedline on 9/15/2010 3:42:56 PM , Rating: 2
NASA generally doesn't suggest doing things that are totally impossible.

I'm sure NASA didn't suggest trying to run a scramjet at subsonic speeds. However, the article states the scramjets would activate upon launch; that is clearly not the case. I didn't want people to be misinformed.

RE: Well, let's see...
By Fritzr on 9/15/2010 4:21:14 PM , Rating: 2
True, but 13 to 14 seconds from the time the brakes are released is close enough that most people would consider them lit during the launch :P

Remember that this is a very vague news release, I suspect that the engineers designing the maglev launcher (yes this tech is already used for 200mph+ trains) are aware of the limitations of the SCRAMJet engines.

These spacecraft will be a minimum of 3 stages.
1st stage is the maglev track and that is dropped when they run off the end of the rail.
2nd stage is the SCRAMJet climb to near orbital altitude.
3rd stage will be conventional rocket booster to insert into orbit where additional non-conventional engines do not have to fight gravity.

An alternative 2 stage design has the "launch pad" mounted on an aircraft. Liftoff from 60000-80000 ft altitude is far cheaper in terms of fuel than liftoff from sealevel. Also a conventional airport is used for launch.

The additional feature here is mounting the rocket on a high speed plane that will launch the rocket while climbing at supersonic speed, allowing the rocket to add acceleration to a high base velocity...more fuel saved.

This idea has been kicking around for many years now. I am glad it has gone beyond the "What a great idea" stage into a serious effort to design the hardware that can do it.

Like the SuperSonic Zeppelin, it has been something that could be done if anyone took the time to design the hardware...but the SSZ is still a wacky idea as no one has tried to design one. This NASA design looks like it will fly :D

RE: Well, let's see...
By Manch on 9/15/2010 5:22:58 PM , Rating: 2
what about rail gun technology? Could they use that instead of MagLev or are the similar?

RE: Well, let's see...
By Fritzr on 9/16/2010 1:08:37 AM , Rating: 2
Similar ... both are Maglev linear accelerators,
A Maglev train/sled rides on the outside, the projectile in a railgun rides inside the magnets of the stationary gun. A railgun design gives more repulsion surface for acceleration, but you are restricted to something that will fit the tube. With a maglev the restriction is the max weight that can be accelerated to target speed.

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