NASA pursues horizontal launch systems

Next generation of satellites could ride the rails or a sled

NASA is trying to use existing technologies in new ways to design an entirely novel launch technology. If it works, the new launch system would propel a space vehicle down a track or on a sled until it's moving fast enough to launch and escape Earth's atmosphere into space, according to Michael Cooney, writing on Network World's Layer 8 blog.

Stan Starr, NASA's branch chief of the Applied Physics Laboratory at the Kennedy facility, said in the blog entry that nothing in the rail launcher -- formally called the Advanced Space Launch System -- requires any new technologies. However, he said, it may require some advances in existing technologies.

NASA engineers have proposed a a 10-year plan that starts with launching drones. If that works, the scientists will move on to more advanced models, with the goal of eventually being able to put small satellites into orbit, Cooney reported.

According to a Fox News report, the system is intended for "scramjets," high-altitude jets that take in air, compressing it and mixing it with hydrogen to create a burst of propulsion. The jets could carry out their missions and then land on a runway alongside the launch sled.

However, the system -- if it succeeds -- could also be used for manned space flights, Starr told Fox. 

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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