Space travel is a costly and inefficient process. Not only does it take a large amount of fuel to send the lightest payload into orbit (the Space Shuttle used over one million pounds of solid propellant to power its rocket boosters), but it is expensive and damaging to the environment (the last 28 years of shuttle service have seen over 42,000 tons of pollutants released into the atmosphere). However, two researchers believe that have found an alternative – maglev technology. Using an electromagnetic catapult launch system called Startram, they propose a process that would see cargo, astronauts and space tourists accelerated into low Earth orbit (LEO) via a magnetized train.
Now it is easy to dismiss the idea of an electromagnetic Space Train as a pie-in-the-sky idea like the Space Elevator, but the Startram designers believe that their idea is commercially feasible and uses technology that is available today. They are also no strangers to maglev technology. Dr. James Powell, who co-invented superconducting maglev trains, and Dr. George Maise, an aerospace engineer who previously worked at Brookhaven National Laboratories, believe that with their joint expertise the Startram could become science fact and not science fiction.
Of course, the problem with such high concept ideas (especially in space) is cost and the Startram project is no different. Powell and Maise have proposed two different models: a cargo-only version (Generation 1), which would cost $20 billion, and a passenger version (Generation 2), which would cost about $60 billion. They would also take ten and twenty years respectively to build and use huge amounts of resources.
While the Gen 1 has been conceived as being built on the side of a tall mountain, the Gen 2 would use magnetically leviated tracks in order to run about 1,609 km (1,000 miles) into the sky, for a staggering altitude of about 20 km (12 miles).
While the track would be securely tethered to the ground, the maglev technology would enable the track to be held in midair. To avoid any shockwave damage, the entire system would be enveloped in a vented vacuum tunnel to absorb the Startram’s hypersonic speeds of up to 9 km/sec (5.6 miles/sec). Once it has been accelerated off the track, the spacecraft would then be high enough to enter a Low Earth Orbit.
So is such an epic, expensive and quite frankly dangerous project worth it? Well, if it is even possible, Powell and Maise state that the mathematics speak for itself. Currently it costs $10,000 to send 1 kg of cargo into space, but using the Startram, they believe it would only cost $50. If NASA endorsed the project, it would also mean that no longer would they have to pay Russia $20 million to send an astronaut to the ISS when the Startram could do it for $5,000.
So there you have it. The technology does exist, but currently only works on terra firma. However the team believe it could have far-reaching benefits for mankind including defending the Earth against large asteroids, harvesting solar energy, mining raw materials from asteroids and comets, building space-based industries, and space colonization. You definetely can’t accuse them of thinking small.