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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Reader Comments

Fri, Feb 11, 2011

This artical is horrible! It dose not explain that the launch rail accellerates an aircarft. They are looking into propelling the aircarft with scram jets. Basically the rail accelerates the aircraft to about 600 mph. This is below the speed of sound so no sonic boom ect. Then the aircaft goes to high altitude an accelerates at high mach, and relases what is basically the second stage of a rocket. Which of course puts a payload into space. Apply a launch rail with an atmospheric assiter and a spacecraft and you reasonable space lift concept. Go to the offical nasa website far better read on this subject.

Fri, Sep 17, 2010 Jim

Ground-level sonic boom? Frictional heating?

Fri, Sep 17, 2010 Albatross

I have a hard time believing that in the dense lower atmosphere we're going to be able to safely accelerate something to re-entry/escape velocities in a static framework. While the vehicle itself might be feasible, what kind of magnetic launch system can withstand the blast of an incoming projectile passing through it while functioning to accelerate the projectile? And the more robust those last few accelerator rings, the more expensive they'll be to repair between launches.

Fri, Sep 17, 2010

Sanger antipodal bomber, WWII German advanced weapon proposal. Also called the Sanger space plane. It too proposed a rail based boost phase.

Fri, Sep 17, 2010 rschne106 Baltimore MD

Another 50's science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein, wrote about the Andes Launch Facility, where a magnetic-drive sled would take a rocket across the Alto Plano desert, then curve up a mountainside to get the correct launch attitude/altitude. What goes around comes around!

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