Science 3 min read

Hyperloop Might Work as a Rocket Launcher

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Hyperloop, the proposed futuristic, superfast train travel between Earth’s cities, could also revolutionize the field of space propulsion. The tech could be repurposed for launching rockets at record speeds with minimal cost and energy consumption.

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Hyperloop: Broadband Terrestrial Travel

Announced in 2013 by Elon Musk, the Hyperloop project is presented as a futuristic means of transportation that allows for ultrafast, cheap and eco-friendly travel.

Hyperloop is thought of as an ultra-fast train traveling almost at the speed of sound (Mach 0.99) on a pressurized air cushion, in a magnetized tube mounted on pylons like a monorail.

In the 57-page document published by Musk, this system would be able to link Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes and at ticket price significantly lower than that of the bus. A team of engineers from SpaceX and Tesla Motors worked on the design in the paper that serves as a conceptual foundation for further development of Hyperloop.

SpaceX sponsored the first Hyperloop Pod Competition in which dozens of universities and research centers from around the world participated. Judges selected three designs and tested them on the Hyperloop Track, an experimental tunnel approximately one mile in length built at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, CA.

The three finalist pods were: first place Delft University with the highest overall score, second place Technical University of Munich with the fastest pod, and third place MIT with the best overall design.

Hyperloop as a Rocket-Launching System?

Musk suggested using the Hyperloop system as a transportation solution. He presented the system as a cross between a rail gun, the Concorde, and air hockey table. It was to be a scalable system that, once mastered down here on earth, could be used to launch rockets into orbit without chemical propellant.

With the fastest of the three pods, designed by the Technical University of Munich team, clocking in at a measly 56 mph, it may sound absurd to talk about space. But we have to remember, this was just a mere idea four years ago. SpaceX will be hosting the second round next summer, the Hyperloop Pod Competition II, this time centered on one criterion: maximum speed.

As it stands, the power draw needed to launch even a tiny craft into orbit via a Hyperloop system would black out an entire city. In addition, the “launchpad” would need to be gigantic. Even if we used natural infrastructure like a mountainside, the sheer investment in magnetizing the launch tube makes the project seem impossible.

Now, the electromagnetic catapult technology is being experimented for military uses. The U.S. Navy, for example, through its Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), is testing the technology to replace expensive and high-maintenance steam-powered catapults aboard aircraft carriers.

The idea of a mass driver or electromagnetic catapult is a speculative method for rocket launching. It was first imagined as a way to send capsules into space by John Munro in 1897, in his novel A Trip to Venus. Then, in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it was the subject of unexpected technical metamorphosis. Here, the electromagnetic catapult is the system for transporting minerals and materials extracted from the lunar soil to Earth, before becoming a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of the Loonies.

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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