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What is the Cheapest Way to Launch Payloads into Space?

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Areas of Science
Time Required
Average (6-10 days)
Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies
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A mass driver is a proposed device that could launch payloads into space using a long tube lined with electromagnets (Figure 1). Some scientists argue that such a launch system would offer long-term cost savings over the use of chemical rockets.

Scientists have proposed theoretical electromagnetic launcher designs as far back as the 1970s (O'Neill 1979). More recently, some have proposed the use of railguns originally developed for the U.S. Navy (McNab and McGlasson 2022). Other types of "space catapults" and launch systems have also been proposed and are under development, such as the SpinLaunch system (Wattles 2022).

Alternatively, companies like SpaceX have developed reusable rockets that drastically reduce the cost of launching payloads into orbit (Roberts 2022).

Drawing of a mass driver constructed on the moon. The driver features a very long tube that stretches across the surface.
Figure 1. Artist's conception of a mass driver on the surface of the Moon. (Image source: NASA, 1977)

All of these existing and proposed technologies have the same goal: to make it cheaper to get mass into space, either from the surface of the Earth or, in the longer term, from the surface of the Moon or other planets like Mars. This will help enable human space exploration and eventually, the construction of larger space stations and the colonization of other planets.

While you can build your own model rockets or miniature working prototype of something like a mass driver, building your own full-scale system to launch payloads into space is not very feasible for a science project. Instead, you can conduct a feasibility study to determine which technology potentially offers the lowest cost per kilogram to launch material into space. You can start with the references in the Bibliography, but this is a rapidly advancing field, so you will need to do your own research on the current state of the art.

In addition, you can conduct your own theoretical design of a launch system, like an electromagnetic launcher or a space catapult. (See Chapter 3 of the O'Neill reference and the McNab/McGlasson paper for examples). Such devices are typically limited by the strength of available construction materials, due to the high forces they may experience. Could advances in materials science allow us to make them lighter or cheaper? Could advances in renewable energy technology help decrease the cost of electrically powered launch systems? There are many areas for you to explore! Can you calculate a theoretical cost per kilogram for your launcher design? How does it compare to existing systems?


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General citation information is provided here. Be sure to check the formatting, including capitalization, for the method you are using and update your citation, as needed.

MLA Style

Finio, Ben. "What is the Cheapest Way to Launch Payloads into Space?" Science Buddies, 13 Sep. 2022, https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Phys_p121/physics/launch-payloads-space. Accessed 27 Sep. 2023.

APA Style

Finio, B. (2022, September 13). What is the Cheapest Way to Launch Payloads into Space? Retrieved from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Phys_p121/physics/launch-payloads-space

Last edit date: 2022-09-13
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