Chemical rocketry is old. In fact — very old.
The Chinese used them in combat against the Mongols as early as the 1230s, and the fundamental concepts haven’t changed from those employed by the Jin dynasty’s artillerists to NASA’s engineers currently.
Obsolescence often overtakes even the most seemingly perennial workhorses though, and the 21st century may perhaps witness great changes regarding how humankind will access Earth orbit in the near-future.
Massive, expensive, unwieldy, and dangerous Saturn V-type vehicles, for many futurists, have always had too many negative attributes to be imagined as the irreplaceable means to put personnel and materiel into orbit.
There should be other better means, and looking to the stunning success of CERN’s 17-mile-long accelerator along the French-Swiss border, used to impel protons at just a fraction below the speed of light, similar methods might be used to deliver regular payloads into orbit.
Maglev (magnetic levitation) trains, using the same motive dynamics as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, are already in service around the world. They run frictionless, suspended in mid-air above the tracks by magnetism, and propelled forward by alternating repelling electromagnets behind the train pushing it forward while attracting electromagnets in front of the train pull it ahead.
German and Japanese maglevs obviously travel horizontally and aren’t built to be revved up as fast as they could possibly go since passengers wouldn’t appreciate the trip, but there’s no reason why the track couldn’t be elevated toward the sky and the accelerator pushed to the floorboard.
The rather speedy velocity of 5 miles per second (18,000 mph) is required to attain orbit, so crafts sent into space via maglevs would be ensconced within an evacuated tube, contacting no rail for a frictionless ride and experiencing zero air drag.
Once the vehicle had ridden the electromagnetic sled to its apex and been hurled into its airborne trajectory at tremendous speed, powerful ground-based microwave arrays might provide the final impetus to reach orbital velocity by tracking the craft and flashing a very modest store of super-cooled liquid (nitrogen, oxygen, etc.) into pressurized gas to jet from the aft of the vehicle.
Maglevs would be an all-electric path to space — efficient, relatively inexpensive, the infrastructure built to be used for decades or centuries, and leaving nothing behind save perhaps puffs of pure nitrogen or oxygen in the upper atmosphere.
The optimum sites for future maglevs could be up the sides of very tall mountains located as close to the equator as possible. Mt. Kilimanjaro, for example, is an excellent candidate. The desirability of an equatorial site is that the Earth’s rotational speed is greatest along this latitude, giving all missiles — chemical or otherwise — a free boost of 1,000 mph simply for choosing the proper location for the launching base.
And, insofar as economics are concerned, Dr. James Powell, former Senior Engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory, has estimated that lift-offs could be scheduled every hour with such a system, putting as much as 70 tons of freight into orbit per launch at an estimated bargain-basement cost of just $10 to $25 per pound.
As far back as 1895 the great Russian scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, was theorizing about yet another way to place cargo into orbit — specifically 22,236 miles above the Earth. That distance is important; quite a few of our satellites occupy that particular swath in space, in geosynchronous orbit.
Satellites at that distance don’t seem to move as seen from the ground. It’s as if they’re suspended motionless overhead, forever hanging over the same geographic location directly below them. For all intents and purposes, that’s more or less the case since orbital velocity is matched by the rotational speed of the Earth.
If a rope ladder (a long one!) were tossed down to Earth from such a geosynchronous platform it could be anchored to the ground and a permanent pathway established into space.
Such "space elevators" are theoretically feasible and violate no laws of motion or precepts of physics. As a matter of fact, the tether between the ground and space would be held quite firmly — the tension provided by gravity at the bottom competing with centrifugal force at the top, stretching the cable tightly, much like an upside-down plumb bob.
The great hurdle to overcome before cargo can be winched into space sliding along the longest tether ever created concerns what material could be light enough and strong enough to hold onto both the Earth and space. No such substance exists currently. Materials scientists know that carbon nanotubes aren’t up to the job, nor probably are boron nitride nanotubes.
Diamond nanothreads (first created four years ago) are being considered, however it remains to be seen if mankind’s ingenuity can fabricate the unique threads requisite to lasso the stars.
David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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