Friday, January 22, 2010

Eat Your Heart Out, Jules Verne

A cannon for shooting supplies into space:

John Hunter wants to shoot stuff into space with a 3,600-foot gun. And he’s dead serious—he’s done the math. Making deliveries to an orbital outpost on a rocket costs $5,000 per pound, but using a space gun would cost just $250 per pound.

Building colossal guns has been Hunter’s pet project since 1992, when, while a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, he first fired a 425-foot gun he built to test-launch hypersonic engines. Its methane-driven piston compressed hydrogen gas, which then expanded up the barrel to shoot a projectile. Mechanical firing can fail, however, so when Hunter’s company, Quicklaunch, released its plans last fall, it swapped the piston for a combustor that burns natural gas. Heat the hydrogen in a confined space and it should build up enough pressure to send a half-ton payload into the sky at 13,000 mph.

Hunter wants to operate the gun, the “Quicklauncher,” in the ocean near the equator, where the Earth’s fast rotation will help slingshot objects into space. A floating cannon—dipping 1,600 feet below sea level and steadied by a ballast system—would let operators swivel it for different orbits. Next month, Hunter will test a functional, 10-foot prototype in a water tank.

You certainly couldn't launch people this way--they'd turn into goo at the kinds of jerk and acceleration needed--but it'd work great for consumables. I don't know if you could launch modules with complex machinery and electronics through such a system, but air, water, food, and propellants are going to make up the bulk of any large-scale suborbital or interplanetary presence, and a massive reduction in launch costs might just be the enabling technology that we need.

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