One of the inventors of the superconducting maglev train is proposing building a bigger, better version than ever before - that could fire out payloads into orbit.
Dr James Powell, along with aerospace engineer Dr George Maise, says such a system could cut the cost of getting a one-kilogram payload to orbit to less than $40. A passenger trip could come in at around $5,000.
Their Startram project, they say, is based on existing maglev technology and basic physics.
"The infrastructure for a cargo-only version would cost on the order of $20 billion to build and could be completed within 10 years," they claim. "A people-capable version could be built for $60 billion and be completed within 20 years."
The principle's fairly simple - although realizing it is pretty ambitious. A 1,000-mile maglev track would run up at an angle to a height of about 12 miles - held there by magnetic levitation.
Superconducting magnets on the moving spacecraft would induce currents in aluminum loops on the acceleration tunnel walls - currents which interact with the magnets on the spacecraft to levitate and stabilize it.
A separate set of aluminum loops on the tunnel wall carries an AC current that magnetically pushes on the vehicle’s superconducting magnets, accelerating it to the speed of the AC current wave.
The tram would accelerate to a speed of about 5.6 miles per second, shooting out like a bullet from a gun.
One of the most useful aspects of the system, say the developers, could be its ability to deal with asteroids and comets, by placing large numbers of interceptors in place around the Earth.
Startram is asking for help with the project, calling on everyone from web designers to fundraisers. You can sign up here.
And check out the picture below for Henri de Montaut's take, from Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon. Plus ca change...