Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Huge 'launch ring' to fling satellites into orbit

By Aussiegirl

I'll bet some scientist was whirling a stone around his head, let go of it, watched it zip off into space, and suddenly thought, "Hey, maybe we could launch satellites into orbit this way!"

Huge 'launch ring' to fling satellites into orbit - space - 03 October 2006 - New Scientist Space

Huge 'launch ring' to fling satellites into orbit
David Shiga

An enormous ring of superconducting magnets similar to a particle accelerator could fling satellites into space, or perhaps weapons around the world, suggest the findings of a new study funded by the US air force.

Proponents of the idea say it would be much cheaper than conventional rocket launches. But critics warn that the technology would be difficult to develop and that the intense g forces experienced during launch might damage the very satellites being lofted into space.

Previous studies have investigated the use of magnets to accelerate satellites to the high speeds required for launch. But most have focused on straight tracks, which have to gather speed in one quick burst. Supplying the huge spike of energy needed for this method has proven difficult.

The advantage of a circular track is that the satellite can be gradually accelerated over a period of several hours. And the setup is technologically feasible and cost effective, suggests a recent, preliminary study of the idea funded by the air force's Office of Scientific Research.

The air force has now given the go-ahead for more in-depth research of the idea. The two-year study will begin within a few weeks and be led by James Fiske of LaunchPoint Technologies in Goleta, California, US.

The launch ring would be very similar to the particle accelerators used for physics experiments, with superconducting magnets placed around a 2-kilometre-wide ring.

The satellite, encased in an aerodynamic, cone-shaped shell that would protect it from the intense heat of launch, would be attached to a sled designed to respond to the forces from the superconducting magnets.

When the sled had been accelerated to its top speed of 10 kilometres per second, laser and pyrotechnic devices would be used to separate the cone from the sled. Then, the cone would skid into a side tunnel, losing some speed due to friction with the tunnel's walls.

The tunnel would direct the cone to a ramp angled at 30° to the horizon, where the cone would launch towards space at about 8 kilometres per second, or more than 23 times the speed of sound. A rocket at the back end of the cone would be used to adjust its trajectory and place it in a proper orbit.

Anything launched in this way would have to be able to survive enormous accelerations – more than 2000 times the acceleration due to gravity (2000g). This would seem to be an obstacle for launching things like communications satellites, but Fiske points out that the US military uses electronics in laser-guided artillery, which survive being fired out of guns at up to 20,000g. [....]


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