Startram is in essence a superconducting maglev launch system.
Getting into space is one of the harder tasks to be taken on by humanity. The present cost of inserting a kilogram (2.2 lb) of cargo by rocket into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is about US$10,000. A manned launch to LEO costs about $100,000 per kilogram of passenger. But who says we have to reach orbit by means of rocket propulsion alone? Instead, imagine sitting back in a comfortable magnetic levitation (maglev) train and taking a train ride into orbit.
All right, its not quite that simple or comfortable – but it should be possible using only existing technology.
Dr George Maise invented the Startram orbital launch system along with Dr James Powell, who is one of the inventors of superconducting maglev – for which he won the 2002 Franklin Medal in engineering. Startram is in essence a superconducting maglev launch system.
The system would see a spacecraft magnetically levitated to avoid friction, while the same magnetic system is used to accelerate the spacecraft to orbital velocities – just under 9 km/sec (5.6 miles/s). Maglev passenger trains have carried passengers at nearly 600 kilometers per hour (373 mph) – spacecraft have to be some 50 times faster, but the physics and much of the engineering is the same.
The scope of the project is challenging. A launch system design for routine passenger flight into LEO should have rather low acceleration – perhaps about 3 g’s maximum, which then requires 5 minutes of acceleration to reach LEO transfer velocities. In that period, the spacecraft will have traveled 1,000 miles (1,609 km). The maglev track must be 1,000 miles in length – similar in size to maglev train tracks being considered for cross-country transportation.
Like a train, the Startram track can follow the surface of the Earth for most of this length. Side forces associated with the curvature of the surface can be accommodated by the design, but not the drag and sonic shock waves of a craft traveling at hypersonic velocity at sea level – the spacecraft and launching track would be torn to shreds.
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