NASA's next potential space project seems ripped straight from science fiction novels -- a horizontal aircraft launcher for the space agency's supersonic air-breathing jets.
Early mockups of the Advanced Space Launch System feature a wedge-shaped aircraft with so-called "scramjet" engines; such engines work by taking in air, mixing it with hydrogen and simultaneously compressing it. The process generates extremely high temperatures that ignite the mixture to create a surge of jet propulsion.
The vision: a horizontally launched craft that takes off at Mach 10 along an electrified track similar to those used on roller coasters. Upon return, the aircraft would be able to land directly onto a runway. And according to NASA, it's very much within reach.
“All of these are technology components that have already been developed or studied,” said Stan Star, NASA’s branch chief of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Kennedy. “We’re just proposing to mature these technologies to a useful level, well past the level they’ve already been taken.”
As far as the aircraft that would launch on the rail, there already are real-world tests for designers to draw on. The X-43A, or Hyper-X program, and X-51 have shown that scramjets will work and can achieve remarkable speeds.
Development and furthering these existing cutting-edge technologies would have numerous social benefits as well, the space agency argues, such as longer lasting batteries and more efficient railway systems.
Given the commercial potential, the project could set the stage for a commercial launch program. Moreover, many of the necessary technologies are already at a relatively advanced level. The current plan proposes flights within the next 10 years, starting with unmanned drones.
While the launch system isn't intended to replace the current means for launching spacecraft, it could easily be adapted to accommodate astronauts, Starr said.
"It's not very often you get to work on a major technology revolution," Starr said.