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Launching Future Concepts
November 19, 2009

A ship using a three-stage system that begins with an electromagnetic catapult could one day make routine access to space more economical.A ship using a three-stage system that begins with an electromagnetic catapult could one day make routine access to space more economical. (NASA Illustration / David Faust) Highly Reliable Reusable Launch System Could Offer Alternative To Brute Force Of Solid Rockets In First Phase

Some of the same technology found in amusement park rides might one day help boost spacecraft during the first stage to radically reduce the costs of a launch.

If that happens, future spacecraft might use a version of a linear induction motor launch system, which essentially is an electromagnetic catapult that would move a spacecraft along a rail system with an air-breathing engine second stage and a rocket-powered third stage completing the job of propelling the vehicle into space, Dryden researcher Kurt Kloesel explained.

Kloesel is working to develop a system that is named the Highly Reliable Reusable Launch System. The goal is to validate and test elements of this launch system and research increasingly complex parts of the overall concept using Small Business Innovative Research and Innovative Partnerships Program funds.

Looking to overcome the challenges of nurturing a small, new technology program, Kloesel has partnered in the current effort with Michael Wright of Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; Darin Marriot, formerly of Embry-Riddle University; Leo Holland of General Atomics of San Diego; and Dryden operations engineer Jonathon Pickrel.

It is through SBIR contracts and leveraging IPP resources that these technologies can be matured from a concept to a capability that will take spacecraft on new missions, at lower costs and with greater reliability, Kloesel said. It might sound too good to be true, but it could be mature in a decade or two when ideas will be sought to make frequent resupply missions to the moon and beyond possible.

That's when the concept will really take off, he said. Until then, he is relying on a current IPP agreement with Embry-Riddle University and industry partner General Atomics to help move the fledgling idea along.

"There is money to leverage and interest from industry because of the IPP program. It has greatly helped to move the project along. IPP has taken it up a few levels," he said.

"This is real; this could happen. This is not just a paper study. When General Atomics throws $100,000 on the table that adds weight to it [the concept]. The IPP program says, 'here's half the money; if it's a good idea, you put up half' and that adds credibility."

The NASA IPP matched funds of $100,000 from General Atomics and $40,000 from Embry-Riddle. The project will look at the motors being developed in San Diego to go 300 mph.

The four motors are specialized for high speed and are not made of commercial off-the-shelf components. General Atomics took delivery of the components in summer 2008.

Kloesel is quick to add that he didn't originate all of the elements of the linear induction motor launch system and that he continually seeks help from people he thinks can help evolve these concepts. Kloesel's key contribution is combining the electromagnetic launch concept with a hybrid air-breathing system.

The origins of some of the concepts on which Kloesel based this project go back to research efforts made at Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., in the late 1990s, he said. The Highly Reliable Reusable Launch System project capitalizes on lessons learned from the previous research and focuses solely on the linear acceleration of the vehicle, which commands the largest portion of system costs.

Technical hurdles include characterizing the system, validating coupling propulsion and superconducting magnet suspension, he said.

The Highly Reliable Reusable Launch System would use the linear induction motor launch system for its first stage and to a speed of about Mach 1.5. After that, a second-stage ramjet engine would propel the spacecraft to Mach 4, where a rocket would complete the trip to orbit, Kloesel said. Aside from the weight reduction, the combination is anticipated to be reliable, he said. It also would be more environmentally friendly than current booster rocket engines, he said.

A small investment from Dryden was required in an earlier phase.

"We obtained an off-the-shelf high-power inverter that is used in the HVAC [heating, ventilating and air conditioning] industry," Kloesel said. "The induction machine is off the shelf from the roller coaster industry and goes 60 miles per hour. In the first phase of this project, we put together the induction machine with Dr. Darin Marriot at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. Marriot and his students put together an educational partnership that resulted in the machine going 150 miles per hour in February 2008."

Kloesel is always on the lookout for ways to advance his concepts. By arranging for student help in summer 2008, he was able to take another step.

Emily Sayles, who was a student in a minority undergraduate science and technology program researched ramjets that could work for a launch-assist vehicle (see related story).

The unique design problem required Sayles to examine data and model a ramjet to calibrate it with what goes on in the catapult, he explained.

While it will take time to mature the ideas Kloesel is advancing through the partnerships and technology and small business grants, he sees the value of the possibilities created through those funding mechanisms.

"IPP, SBIR contracts and other seed funding boosts morale and make [NASA and Dryden] even better places to work," he concluded.

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