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NASA explores electromagnetic space launches

An artist's concept of a magnetic levitation system for space launch
An artist's concept of a magnetic levitation system for space launch  

By Fred Katayama
CNN Financial Correspondent

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama (CNN) -- Researchers at NASA are looking into whether electromagnets can be used to send rockets into space, a technological leap that could dramatically cut launch costs.

Spacecraft burn hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel to reach orbit. But rocket engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center are investigating whether electromagnetic power can do the job.

It would be a much cleaner and safer method of launching vehicles, and much cheaper. NASA hopes to drive down the cost of rocket departures from $10,000 per pound to $1,000 per pound.

"Hopefully, we can reduce the weight of the fuel and oxidizer that's needed to be carried on board the vehicle and that will decrease the size of the vehicle," said NASA scientist Kenneth House. "So hopefully, we could get more payload into space with less of the fuel."

Magnetic levitation, or maglev for short, works by using opposing magnetic polarities to lift a metal sled carrying a plane off the tracks. For propulsion, the magnetic fields in the sled and in the rails repel each other, pushing the vehicle forward.

Last spring, NASA succeeded in magnetically launching a model plane, which accelerated to 60 miles an hour in less than half a second.

NASA researchers have set lofty goals for this project, but they face a major obstacle: the scarcity of funding. They have only $30,000 for the next phase of this project. NASA cannot move onto the next stage immediately, but welcomes competitors working on similar projects.

"This is research, so we're interested in anybody somewhere pursuing this," said John Cole, manager of space transportation research at Marshall.

The U.S. Navy is conducting maglev research. It plans to make its fleet largely electric, catapulting fighters from its carriers with magnetic propulsion instead of steam. Northrop Grumman and General Atomics of San Diego are the development contractors competing on the project.

"A very high power propulsion system is needed to give the energy to launch a large aircraft in the length of a football field. That will be demonstrated in about two years," said John Rawls, vice president of electromagnetic systems for General Atomics.

Rockets are a bigger challenge. NASA's next hurdle is launching a rocket at 150 mph on a track that can carry up to two tons.

Some NASA scientists think maglev launches may be 20 years away. But one of the agency's research partners is more optimistic.

"Within five years, you'll see aircraft being launched magnetically. Most of the technical challenges have been overcome. We are now in the scaling areas to match the aerodynamics of the launch with the spacecraft and the launcher," said George Scelzo of Chicago-based PRT Advanced Maglev Systems.

But to propel their research onto the next stage, NASA and its partners will need to land millions more in money.




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