Is it possible to get to space without big rockets?

Since then, people started bringing satellites into orbit in the 1950-ies, we rely on large, powerful rockets capable of escaping from the clutches of Earth’s gravity and get into space. But large rockets has a big drawback: they space launches rather expensive. The launch of a heavy Space Launch System will cost NASA $ 1 billion for each launch. Much more affordable the launch of the Falcon Heavy would still cost 100-150 million dollars.

However, for decades, visionaries were looking for a way to get into space without relying — at least not completely — on rocket power.

From the air into orbit

Anapproach, starting from the air into orbit may replace the rocket. Stratolaunch, a private space company founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2011, had an ambitious plan to deploy the world’s largest aircraft with a wingspan of 117 meters. Like even the plane was ready, but the company had to abandon most of their projects.

According to plan, the plane was supposed to reach a height of 10 metres and 668 there to act as a high-altitude launch platform for a small rocket devices. After release they would not have to overcome the resistance of the thick lower atmosphere, as do land-based missiles, and they would get into orbit without burning too much fuel. In August 2018, the company showed four different types of devices, including reusable spaceplane capable of carrying cargo or people.

Virgin Orbit was planning to use a modified Boeing 747-400 as the platform for the rocket LauncherOne, which brings the satellites into orbit. In November of 2018 took the first test flight of the rocket.

Raised the launch tube

Several other even more exotic concepts are still on the drawing Board. James R. Powell, one of the authors of the concept of superconducting motors-maglunob for trains of the mid-60s, and his colleague in engineering design George maze for many years advocated the use of this technology for space launch vehicles.

Instead of the launch pad project Startram would rely on a massive elevated launch tube. “Imagine a Maglev train in a vacuum tunnel,” explains Powell. “As there is no air resistance that slows the machine, and there is no need to carry huge amounts of fuel on Board (as in the case of missiles) will be relatively easy to achieve the orbital velocity of 30,000 kilometers per hour or even more. When the device exits the tunnel at a high(for example, at the site of a great mountain), it will move so quickly that actually fly into orbit, and a small rocket will help to curve its trajectory. We have also developed several mechanisms that will keep the vacuum in the tunnel after the launch, so it can be quickly used for the next start-up. All important system components Startram already exists and is well studied.”

Powell first began to consider the use of superconducting maglunob to launch the spacecraft after a proposal by the colleagues from NASA in 1992. First, he and maze have developed the concept of system $ 100 billion, appropriate for manned space launches, in which the pipe is to climb the massive superconducting cables. They have also developed a reduced system of cargo pipes with a length of 100 kilometers, rising to a height of 4000 meters on the slope of a high mountain. Only one, this system would cost $ 20 billion — but is less than the cost of developing a new heavy launch NASA.

After the construction of the Startram would be able to carry 100 000 tons of cargo into space every year, many times more than now carry missiles, and bring the equipment into low earth orbit at a price of around $ 100 per kilogram. It is much cheaper than the cost of shipping cargo into space now.

“The biggest technical problem is the output window of the launch tube,” says Powell. “The pipe must remain in the vacuum, therefore, when the vehicle exits the launch tube during launch, we need to prevent the entrainment of air from the atmosphere.” Startram is supposed to keep the air outside, use the steam nozzle to reduce air pressure outside the exit and tripping magnetohydrodynamic window that will use a strong magnetic field for the continuous elimination of air.

Another idea, which for many years is the construction of a space Elevator. In 2000 on the NASA website, an article appeared describing the high tower near the equator of the Earth, which will be connected by cable to the satellite in a geostationary orbit at 35 786 kilometers above sea level and which will act as a counterweight. Four to six lift devices on the electromagnets could be moved along the tower and get on the platform at different levels. The spacewalk could be carried out for five hours — while enjoying the beautiful view.

This concept goes back to 1895 when Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky proposed to build a “celestial castle” that will be attached to the structure, resembling the Eiffel tower in Paris. Since then, fans of the idea continue to promote this concept and even created the organization “the international space Elevator consortium”, which regularly publishes various technical studies. However, the feasibility of the space Elevator was called into question in 2016, when Chinese scientists published a paper which reported that carbon nanotubes — a material that had high hopes and which could form the basis of the cable for the space Elevator will be vulnerable to the defect, which can greatly reduce their strength.