Levitated Locomotion To Space

September 29, 1998

"THIS is a thrilling ride," announces a pre-recorded, bass voice over the clank of your seatbelt buckle. You're strapped in for the ride of your life. You patiently waited and watched as others experienced the adventure. Your eyeglasses and other loose articles tucked away, now it's your turn. But this is no ordinary roller coaster ride and you're not at an amusement park. You're perched on an airport runway, ready for take-off on your first trip to space.

Tickets could go on sale just after the turn of the century.

NASA's Advanced Space Transportation Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is developing magnetic levitation technologies that could reduce the cost of going to space so dramatically that everyday people could leave the planet.

NASA and industry partner PRT Systems Inc. of Park Forest, Ill., are teaming with an amusement ride manufacturer and a British university for research into magnetic levitation -- or maglev -- that could help launch spacecraft into orbit using magnets to float a vehicle along a track.

"Magnetic levitation is a promising technology for future space transportation as we build the highway to space," said Garry Lyles, manager of the Advanced Space Transportation Program. "The most expensive part of any mission to low-Earth orbit is the first few seconds -- getting off the ground. Maglev is a low-cost alternative for space transportation because it leaves the first-stage propulsion system on the ground."

Just as high-strength magnets lift and propel high-speed trains and roller coasters a couple of inches above a guideway, a maglev launch-assist system would electromagnetically drive a space vehicle down a track. The carrier could be similar to a flatbed railcar. The magnetically levitated vehicle would catapult from the ground at 600 mph and then shift to a rocket engine to reach orbit.

"A maglev system is virtually maintenance-free because it has no moving parts and there's no contact," said Lyles. "It could help launch a spacecraft from a typical airport runway to low-Earth orbit every 90 minutes." A single maglev system is projected to work for 30 years.

Cutting-edge technology for maglev emerged through successful proof-of-concept experiments at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. In a laboratory there, a 2-foot-long sled is propelled at 120 mph along a 20-foot electromagnetic track.

The track is actually an advanced linear induction motor that provides thrust, lift and the added advantage of guidance of the launch vehicle. Figuratively a rotary motor split in half and rolled out flat, a linear induction motor produces thrust in a straight line instead of by turning a shaft or gears. Motors for the experiment were developed by PRT and funded by Arrow Dynamics Inc. of Clearfield, Utah, an amusement ride manufacturer.

As part of a larger scale experiment in 1999, two tracks measuring 50 and 400 feet are planned in Huntsville. Design plans are scheduled to be finalized within two years for a 5,000-foot track capable of launching a 40,000-pound payload at a test site.

Two other approaches to maglev for space launch are being developed for NASA by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory of San Francisco and Foster-Miller Inc. of Waltham, Mass. The Livermore team has developed a system that uses permanent magnets and a novel linear motor that runs without superconductors or complex feedback circuits. The Foster-Miller system uses a linear motor with superconducting magnets on the vehicle.

As early as 2007, a maglev launch assist system could be used to launch very small communications satellites for thousands of dollars per pound. Within 20 years, this technology could be used to help launch much larger payloads to orbit for only hundreds of dollars per pound -- a welcome contrast to today's launch costs of $10,000 per pound. When the price comes down, more people go up. And that's when the tickets go on sale for a thrilling ride to leave the planet.
Note to Editors: Interviews, photos and video supporting this release are available to media representatives by contacting June Malone, Media Relations Office, Marshall Space Flight Center, (256) 544-0034. For an electronic version of this release, photos, quicktime movie or more information, visit Marshall's Virtual NewsRoom: http://www.msfc.nasa.gov/news

For more information on the Advanced Space Transportation Program, visit its Web site: http://stp.msfc.nasa.gov

NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center News Center

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