Project StarTram: Could magnetic levitation propel low cost space travel of tomorrow?

Space travel has held the imagination of the planet for long and the USA - USSSR cold war and subsequent race into space has ensured that the whole planet is more or less tuned into what humanity has accomplished in the last five decades or so in regards to space exploration. While the frenzy to be the first into space and then to land a man on moon and bring him back safely consumed and overtook cost constraints for several decades, researchers and governments across the globe are starting to seriously ponder over the economic strings that come attached with the current method of ‘reaching the skies’.

Maglev Trains
Maglev Trains

A firm by the name of StarTram is now proposing a possible alternative to the bulky, fuel-bearing rockets that we use today and if the technologies of superconductivity and magnetic levitation progress and flourish at a healthy rate, then the future of space travel might involve a long maglev tunnel that will shoot payload into the vast infinity with ease!

Project StarTram decoded:

Magnetically levitated trains are already under construction in China and while a space launching vehicle using the same principle of levitation is far more extensive and expensive, it should be a possibility in the near future. StarTram gives a shape to this hypothesis and turns it into a viable reality with an 80 mile long tunnel, which will curve up a mountain and allow the payload to be shot off at its peak. The vacuum tunnel and the magnetic levitation employed would allow the payload to touch speeds of 20,000 mph as it flies into space.

StarTram suggests an addition of few lightweight rockets just for course correction and this should ensure the payload achieving the required orbit height and angle. Sounds fabulous and effectively simple at the heart of it all, doesn’t it? Well, there are a few more twists and turns in the StarTram story.

Can we fund this cutting-edge technology?

The first big question will always be about the cost effectiveness of a technological breakthrough and in case of StarTram and magnetic levitation in general, that should not be a hurdle too difficult to get past. In simple terms, estimates put the construction of a StarTram that transports only payloads (not humans) at around $20 billion with a construction time of around 10 years. Those close to the development of the technology say that they would get it ready by 2020 if the funding was good to go today.

While $20 billion might seem a lot to you and me, it is barely a trifle compared to the amount we spend on out space programs today and the huge fuel-guzzling rockets which cannot be reused. When complete, StarTram can transport 35 tons of cargo ten times each day which would basically add up to $20/pound for getting payload into space. Now, that sounds like pretty cheap long distance courier to us!

Potential to fire up space tourism:

While the first generation StarTram that will crawl up a mountain side, cost $20 billion and shoot payloads at 20,000 mph cannot be used to send humans into space, the second generation StarTram will be able to compensate for that flaw as well. So what’s wrong with gen-1 StarTram you ask? Well, launching at speeds which will see acceleration of 30gs pretty much ensures that any of us inside the payload will turn to mushy pulp.

A StarTram that could launch humans into space is slated to be an around 1000 miles long vacuum tunnel that extends 14 miles into the atmosphere and will be held by ground-hooked cables that would be charged by 280 mega-amps of electricity. Setting up something like this could well cost something in the range of $70 billion.

But if a system of this magnitude is set in place then space tourism could be available at $13,000 a piece. But we wouldn’t really suggest on saving up for this holiday just yet as a potential Gen-2 StarTram seems a long way away. (Longer than Gen-1)

Challenges facing StarTram:

Obviously there are plenty of challenges facing StarTram and while a Gen-1 StarTram that just transports payload seems very realistic, human transport seems a far-far away. The power requirements needed for the project also seem considerably high when we wish to cut down on the acceleration speed to make it viable for human transport.

Eco edge offered by magnetic levitation:

There is a definite ‘green tinge’ to this technology that is not offered by conventional rocket science. The lack of burning of millions of tons of fuel and the resulting wastage of resources is pretty apparent on the face of it. Add to it the advantage of reusability and a launch pad that saves on huge amounts of raw material after initial installation and you have StarTram standing with a clear and distinct edge over traditional rocket launching methods.

Risk involved:

While the concept of shooting payload off of a long tunnel using magnetic levitation might sound iffy, the technology is tried, tested and is far less accident prone than a rocket filled with gallons and gallons of highly combustible fuel. StarTram claim that the risk factor will indeed be much lower than in the case of the current technology used in space travel and experts in the field seem to have no reason to doubt their claims.

Will Magnetic Levitation be the future of space travel?

Well, to give a simple yes or a no, would be a bit too presumptuous, but the fact remains that no matter which way you look at it, you are better off betting on the side of StarTram and maglev technology than against it. And the reason for it is not too far-fetched either. The technology involved is already at hand to a very large extent, if not completely. Making of magnetic levitation propelled launch pads does not require any new and stunning breakthroughs in science we need to wait for.

Add to it the fact that $20 billion does not seem like much considering we spend $20 million on every guy we spend to ISS today on a single trip. The fact that it offers reusability and cuts down on burning fuel for the sake of propulsion seem to be an added incentive. At least, the first generation of StarTram is very much a possibility in our opinion, and if the right will and means are put behind it, could well take shape in the next two decades.

And before you scorn at the idea, remember that every crazy scientific noting that seemed like fiction some time in the past; humanity has found a way to turn it into reality… Much like landing on the moon. Of course, you are welcome to disagree!

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