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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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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?

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