Tuesday, October 03, 2006


You can't shake a stick without hitting new ideas for space launch.

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.

A ring?
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.

But it's not for people
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.

They do indeed. Artillery shells are mass-produced which brings the cost down a bit.

I'm not knocking the idea - if it works, great. A mature transportation system has room in it for all kinds of ways to get to orbit. Rocket planes for a sub-ortibal hop, launch rings for stuff that stand 2000 Gs (wow) and, perhaps, space elevators.

There are problems - aren't there always?
Although Epstein is sceptical about the prospects for such a ring, he cautions that if built, the ring itself could become a target for attacks. This is because of its potential for use as a weapon, launching missiles that could reach anywhere in the world. "The ring then becomes one of the most important targets on the planet," he told New Scientist.

I've heard that one before


You can almost hear the 'whoosh'
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