NASA looks at horizontal, railgun-like rocket launcher

NASA’s Advanced Space Launch System is one of a few new future launch technologies

NASA is looking hard at a way to blast spacecraft horizontally down an  electrified track or gas-powered sled and into space hitting speeds of about Mach 10.  The craft would then return and land on a runway by the launch site. 

The rail launcher, known Advanced Space Launch System is one of a few new launch systems a team of engineers from Kennedy Space Center and several other NASA centers are looking at that would use existing cutting-edge technologies to offer the space agency a next generation launcher to the stars, NASA stated.

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Nothing in the rail design calls for brand-new technology to be developed, however, the system counts on a number of existing technologies to be pushed forward, said  NASA's Stan Starr, branch chief of the Applied Physics Laboratory at the Kennedy facility. The space center would need to build a launch test bed, potentially in a two-mile long area parallel to the crawlerway leading to the current Launch Pad 39A, NASA said.

Starr noted that electric tracks catapult rollercoaster riders daily at theme parks. But those tracks call for speeds of 60 mph -- enough to thrill riders, but not nearly fast enough to launch something into space. The launcher would need to reach at least 10 times that speed over the course of two miles in Starr's proposal.

For now, the engineers have proposed a 10-year plan that would start with launching a drone like those the Air Force uses, NASA said.  More advanced models would follow until they are ready to build one that can launch a small satellite into orbit, NASA stated.

A rail launcher study using gas propulsion already is under way, but the team is applying for funding under several areas, including NASA's push for technology innovation, but the engineers know it may not come to pass. The effort is worth it, however, since there is a chance at revolutionizing launches, NASA stated.

In the example NASA offered wedge-shaped aircraft with scramjets would lift the craft to the upper reaches of the atmosphere where a small payload canister or capsule similar to a rocket's second stage would fire off the back of the aircraft and into orbit.

NASA said as far as the aircraft that would launch on the rail, there already are real-world tests such as the X-43A, X-51 or NASA's Hyper-X have shown that scramjets will work.

NASA engineers also envisioned an number of spinoffs from developing the rail technology, such as systems to make more efficient commuter rail systems and  better batteries for cars and trucks.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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