"THIS is a thrilling ride," announces a pre-recorded, bass voiceover the clank of your seat belt buckle. You're strapped in for the ride ofyour life.
You patiently waited and watched as others experienced theadventure. Your eyeglasses and other loose articles tucked away, now it'syour turn.
But this is no ordinary roller coaster ride and you're not at anamusement park. You're perched on an airport runway, ready for take-off onyour 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 SpaceFlight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is developing magnetic levitationtechnologies that could reduce the cost of going to space so dramaticallythat everyday people could leave the planet.
NASA and industry partner PRT Systems Inc. of Park Forest, Ill., areteaming with an amusement ride manufacturer and a British university forresearch into magnetic levitation -- or maglev -- that could help launchspacecraft into orbit using magnets to float a vehicle along a track.
"Magnetic levitation is a promising technology for future spacetransportation as we build the highway to space," said Garry Lyles, managerof the Advanced Space Transportation Program. "The most expensive part ofany mission to low-Earth orbit is the first few seconds -- getting off theground. Maglev is a low-cost alternative for space transportation becauseit leaves the first-stage propulsion system on the ground."
Just as high-strength magnets lift and propel high-speed trains androller coasters a couple of inches above a guideway, a maglev launch-assistsystem would electromagnetically drive a space vehicle down a track. Thecarrier could be similar to a flatbed railcar. The magnetically levitatedvehicle would catapult from the ground at 600 mph and then shift to a rocketengine to reach orbit.
"A maglev system is virtually maintenance-free because it has nomoving parts and there's no contact," said Lyles. "It could help launch aspacecraft from a typical airport runway to low-Earth orbit every 90minutes." A single maglev system is projected to work for 30 years.
Cutting-edge technology for maglev emerged through successfulproof-of-concept experiments at the University of Sussex in Brighton,England. In a laboratory there, a 2-foot-long sled is propelled at 120 mphalong a 20-foot electromagnetic track. The track is actually an advanced linear induction motor thatprovides thrust, lift and the added advantage of guidance of the launchvehicle. Figuratively a rotary motor split in half and rolled out flat, alinear induction motor produces thrust in a straight line instead of byturning a shaft or gears. Motors for the experiment were developed by PRTand funded by Arrow Dynamics Inc. of Clearfield, Utah, an amusement ridemanufacturer.
As part of a larger scale experiment in 1999, two tracks measuring50 and 400 feet are planned in Huntsville. Design plans are scheduled to befinalized within two years for a 5,000-foot track capable of launching a40,000-pound payload at a test site.
Two other approaches to maglev for space launch are being developedfor NASA by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory of San Francisco andFoster-Miller Inc. of Waltham, Mass. The Livermore team has developed asystem that uses permanent magnets and a novel linear motor that runswithout superconductors or complex feedback circuits. The Foster-Millersystem uses a linear motor with superconducting magnets on the vehicle.
As early as 2007, a maglev launch assist system could be used tolaunch very small communications satellites for thousands of dollars perpound. Within 20 years, this technology could be used to help launch muchlarger payloads to orbit for only hundreds of dollars per pound -- a welcomecontrast to today's launch costs of $10,000 per pound. When the price comesdown, more people go up. And that's when the tickets go on sale for athrilling ride to leave the planet.
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Note to Editors: Interviews, photos and video supporting this release areavailable to media representatives by contacting June Malone, MediaRelations Office, Marshall Space Flight Center, (256) 544-0034. For anelectronic version of this release, photos, quicktime movie or moreinformation, visit Marshall's Virtual NewsRoom:http://www.msfc.nasa.gov/news
For more information on the Advanced Space Transportation Program, visit itsWeb site:http://stp.msfc.nasa.gov
The above story is based on materials provided by NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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