22 July 2013

Hyperloop to Space

So I'm blogging this from the phone in the idyllic Northern Ireland sunshine. It's not quite equatorial, but as my thoughts strayed south, I felt I should share with you, dear geek reader, my idea for cheap, reliable, energy-efficient and safe access to space.

I came up with this a few years ago - I'm sure I'm not the first. Basically you have a hollow evacuated tube that encircles the Earth at the equator. One part of the tube touches the ground, the other is up in space. To get to space, you basically drive up up up and away!

But how does it stay up? you ask. Well, inside our tube are a load of pigs running round the earth very fast. Not real pigs of course - orbital velocity counterweights, accelerated by electricity and magnetically held off the inner walls of the tube. Thousands of them (actually a million or so). As they hurtle round the tube, effectively in "orbit", they provide the lift to hoist the "space end" of the tube off the surface of the planet. Adjusting the velocities of the pigs allows us to control the stability of the ring and keep one end down and the other up. The pigs will travel at tens of kilometres per second inside the tube; the whole thing remains stable.

This system, effectively a bridge to space, has several advantages over the classical space elevator concept. For one, the additional technologies required are far lower; everything sits within the realm of the currently-available. We don't need masses of material already in orbit, or super-strength carbon nanotube cable.

Construction will present challenges - how do we build and protect a ring around Earth while we fill it with pigs and fire them up? How do we negotiate the Pacific and Atlantic, and the numerous national territories, shipping lanes and airspaces during both construction and operation? Where do we site the "ground" station? Is it vulnerable to weather, natural disasters or attack? What safety systems will be necessary?

Perhaps we lack the determination and vision to build this. But, if created, it would open up space like nothing on Earth.

First stage assembly complete. Now load up the pigs!