Startram — maglev train to low earth orbit

March 13, 2012 | Source: Gizmag

A spacecraft emerging from the Startram magnetically levitated launch system (credit: Startram)

The present cost of inserting a kilogram (2.2 lb) of cargo by rocket into low earth orbit (LEO) is about US$10,000. A manned launch to LEO costs about $100,000 per kilogram of passenger.

Instead, imagine sitting back in a comfortable magnetic levitation (maglev) train and taking a train ride into orbit.

That’s the concept for Startram, a superconducting maglev launch system.

The system would see a spacecraft magnetically levitated to avoid friction, while the same magnetic system is used to accelerate the spacecraft to orbital velocities — just under 9 km/sec (5.6 miles/s).

Maglev passenger trains have carried passengers at nearly 600 kilometers per hour (373 mph) – spacecraft have to be some 50 times faster, but the physics and much of the engineering is the same.┬áLike a train, the Startram track can follow the surface of the Earth for most of this length.

Sandia National Laboratories has carried out an investigation of the Startram concept. They gave Startram a clean bill of health. Estimates suggest that building a passenger-capable Startram would require 20 years and a construction budget (ignoring inflation and overoptimism) of about $60 billion.

Why take on such an enormous project? Simple — $50 per kilogram amortized launch costs, according to Startram designers. The total worldwide cost of developing and using rocket-based space travel is more than $500 billion. The Space Shuttle program cost about $170 billion. The International Space Station has cost about $150 billion to date.

As yet, we are making very little commercial use of near-Earth space beyond deployment of communication and imaging satellites. Reducing the LEO insertion costs a hundredfold should finally start our commercial exploitation of the special resources of space, according to Startram designers.