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Rail-Space Launcher

October 18, 2010

Giving spacecraft a running start on a long rail may significantly reduce launch costs.


Railing toward space…I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

The next generation of spacecraft may be much cheaper to launch, thanks to a running start on a horizontal rail up to two miles long. Physicist Stanley Starr of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center works on the project. He says that like the third rail of a train track, a rail could provide much of the launch power to an airplane-like craft. That means the craft itself could be significantly lighter.

STANLEY STARR (NASA-Kennedy Space Center):
If you think about a commercial jet, the jet’s engines work the hardest during takeoff. And by assisting that takeoff, we can significantly shrink the mass of those engines.

The craft would take off from the rail like a supersonic jet. Once it reached the upper atmosphere, a more conventional booster would send the payload into space. Starr says the basic technology for the system already exists – it just needs to be taken up a few notches. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.