The space race is heating up as a system designed by engineers at the University of Sussex is launching itself into the space engineering world. A team at the university has been awarded part of a $1 million grant by NASA to explore the possibilities of electromagnetic technology for assisting the launch of rockets into space. If their concept is successful, trips to space could be possible for everyone.
The team, led by Professor Jayawant, is conducting research into magnetic levitation, or maglev, as a source of power for rocket launches. Maglev uses electromagnets and an electrically driven linear motor to lift and propel a vehicle at high speed down a specially designed track. The launch track would be inclined at an angle so that when the rocket reaches its critical speed, it can be catapulted into space.
The biggest constraint on NASA's exploration of space is the huge cost each time a rocket is launched. The most wasteful aspect of the launch - in environmental as well as financial terms - is the amount of fuel burnt up in the first few seconds before the second stage can be put into orbit. The fuel used up in this process is a third of the total weight of the rocket. In contrast, the electromagnetic system would use only £5.00 worth of electricity from the mains.
Garry Lyles, manager of NASA's Advanced Space Transportation Programme, is enthusiastic about the "promising technology" of maglev, which avoids the waste and cost by using a propulsion system which is based on the ground rather than integrated into the rocket. According to Dr Denis Edwards, a member of the Sussex team, the system could result in "huge, huge savings". Once installed, the track could be re-used for up to thirty years, recovering the high initial cost many times over.
The proof of concept experiments have so far been successful, as the engineers at Sussex have succeeded in propelling a 2 ft shuttle down a 12 ft track at 25 mph in the first 4 ft. The prototype designed by the team will be built at a site near the Marshall Space Flight Centre and tested in December, when a load of 100 pounds will be expected to accelerate to 70 mph in the first 25 ft. Achieving this speed completes the first phase of a three part plan, with the eventual launch of a maglev-powered rocket a possibility by 2007.
The maglev system was the brainchild of highly distinguished engineer, the late Professor Eric Laithwaite.
The contribution of the team at Sussex will ensure that the efficiency of transport systems, the scariness of rollercoasters - and indeed space travel itself - will be catapulted straight into the 21st century.
For further information please contact
University of Sussex,
Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 678335,
After Monday 5 October, Professor Jayawant will also be available for comment,
Tel. 01273 606755 ext 2653/2654.