Sussex engineers launch NASA test track
Last year the Bulletin reported that a team in the School of Engineering, led by Professor Jay Jayawant, was working with NASA and its American industry partner PRT Advanced Mag-Lev Systems to use magnetic levitation and propulsion for assisting the launch of spacecraft. This is a part of the NASA Advanced Space Transportation Programme, which aims to reduce dramatically the cost of getting into space. With conventional rocket launching, an enormous amount of fuel is used at the beginning to get the craft off the ground. The idea of magnetic launch assist is to accelerate the craft to about 400 mph before the rocket engine takes over. A prototype using a 12-ft track was demonstrated in the Sussex laboratories last year, leading to the design of a 50-ft track that has been built near the Marshall Space Flight Centre in Alabama and was successfully demonstrated last month.
The pictures show a 5-ft model of a new design of reusable spacecraft, on top of a carrier that is levitated and propelled along the track by magnetic forces. Covers have been removed from part of the track to show the coils that levitate and guide the carrier. In a full-scale system there would be two tracks, one on each side of the spacecraft, and they would be much smaller in proportion to the size of the craft. The demonstration track uses a novel design of linear motor based on concepts proposed by Eric Laithwaite (Visiting Professor at Sussex until 1997). Eric Laithwaite's work on magnetic levitation and linear motors fired the imagination of engineers at NASA, which led to the University's involvement in the project. The next phase will use a twin track 200 ft long, carrying a load of 1000 lb - ten times the capacity of the 50-ft track.
For video footage of the prototype track visit the Marshall Space Flight Centre website at www1.msfc.nasa.gov/NEWSROOM/ news/releases/1999/99-260.html
From Falmer to Alabama: Testing out the prototype are Bill Jacobs of the Marshall Centre (left), Bill Dawson (back left) and Denis Edwards (front right) from Sussex and George Scelzo of PRT Advanced Maglev Systems Inc. (back right).
Friday 22nd October 1999