Cost…the final frontier

Years after Laithwaite’s linear motor experiments incited derision from much of the scientific establishment, NASA is building on his legacy; conducting research into magnetic levitation (maglev) technology which could dramatically reduce the cost of getting into space.

In experiments at the University of Sussex, a 2ft long sled was propelled along a 20ft electromagnetic track at 120mph. The track, manufactured by amusement ride expert Arrow Dynamics, is a linear induction motor which, as well as producing thrust in a straight line, is practically maintenance-free because it has no moving parts and no points of contact. Increasingly larger experiments are planned over the next two years, culminating in the launch of a 40,000lb payload from a 5,000ft track.

Just as magnets are used to propel high-speed trains, a maglev system would electromagnetically drive a space vehicle down a track, and catapult it from the ground at 600mph into a new era of cost-effective space travel. Garry Lyles, manager of the advanced space transportation program explains: “The most expensive part of any mission is getting off the ground. Maglev is a low cost alternative because it leaves the first-stage propulsion system on the ground.” In real figures, the cost of sending a payload into space is currently around $10,000 per pound; a maglev system could bring this down to hundreds of dollars per pound.

It is likely to cost a little more than an Easy Jet return to Glasgow, but NASA anticipates that this technology will enable `everyday’ people to take the trip of a lifetime within 20 years.