For more than a half century, rockets have been used to launch vehicles out of the Earth's atmosphere. The United States' Apollo Program saw Saturn rockets used to launch astronauts into outer space. The problem with rockets is they are meant for one-time use. While they can get space equipment out of the Earth's atmosphere, rockets are expensive because of the material they use and the cost of propellants. The heavier the equipment, the higher the cost to launch it. Today, it costs about $500 million to use rockets which are unsustainable. Launching a satellite with a spacecraft with 6 astronauts costs as much as $10-30 million per metric ton. The hope was to create a rocket that could be reused.
Despite decreased funding and politics, NASA developed the Space Shuttle program which was able to launch the manned spacecraft and return it the Earth. The first Space Shuttle mission in 1981 was inspiring. The Space Shuttle could carry larger payloads into Earth's orbit as well as carry astronauts to make repairs and conduct experiments. Unfortunately, the Space Shuttle program was unable to meet the cost efficiency hoped for. Each mission meant major maintenance costs on the Shuttles including complete overhauls and replacement of materials.
Today, rockets are still the only way to propel spacecraft out of the Earth's atmosphere. However, as space exploration expands and the hope of sending people into space increases, the idea of finding a way to send spacecraft to outer space is growing with possibilities. Here are 5 potential ways to outer space other than rockets.
Space Elevators have been a vision of many scientists for more than a century. In 1895, Russian scientist, Konstantin Tsolkovski, developed the idea when he saw the Eiffel Tower built. Tsolkovski envisioned a tower that would reach the geostationary orbit of the Earth. The tower could carry payloads into outer space.
Recently, with interest in reducing the need for rockets to launch spacecraft, scientists have revisited the idea of the Space Elevator. NASA's Dr. Brad Edwards worked with the theory in 2002. Dr. Edwards proposed using a flexible and durable cable as a counterweight to the space station. The cable would use magnetic levitation or rollers along a tether to carry equipment or even people into space. The idea of a tether continued to be developed. The problem challenging the design was that the material would need to be strong, dense and flexible. It would have to support itself 3000 miles. Although the cost to build such a system would be costly, the outcome would be less expensive than continuing to use rockets to launch craft into space.
Another problem facing the development of the Space Elevator is that no material exists that could make it possible. Development for possible material is ongoing. The possibilities include carbon nanotubes, diamond nanothreads, or baron nitrate. It is thought that suitable material could be developed by 2030. Japan has been working on the STAR-C Orbiter. Scientists are testing the use of Kevlar in outer space. If suitable material is discovered, space travel may be possible through a Space Elevator.
Space Exploration Vehicle
NASA's Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) is in development. The idea is to have a pressurized cabin for in-space missions on near Earth asteroids and possible Mars. The cabin would be mounted on chassis and feature pivoting wheels. It would be able to travel 10 km per hour in any direction with the 360 degree pivoting wheels. It could carry 2 astronauts on a 14 day mission. It would provide sleep and sanitation facilities for the astronauts.
The SEV would need to be launched into space, but it would be beneficial for manned surface missions that would return to Earth. Such a spacecraft would require little or no maintenance. It could travel thousands of miles over rough terrain with slopes up to 40 degrees. The craft is being tested in rough desert regions of the United States. Arms would be able to collect samples or the astronauts would be able to use space suits to leave the cabin. This device is exciting for scientists envisioning manned surface missions on asteroids and on Mars.
Solar Sail Technology
Launching a rocket into outer space is fast. The problem is that a rocket cannot return to the Earth and will eventually die out. The idea of using solar sail technology is developing. Solar sails would be rocket- less and powered by the sun. They would launch slowly but steadily and pick up speed as the sun exerts force on them. The craft would not die out because it would have an endless supply of energy from the sun. Solar sails could return to Earth.
Nuclear Powered Spaceships
Nuclear propulsion has been studied for decades as an alternative to rockets to launch spacecraft out of the Earth's atmosphere. Nuclear power uses either fission or fusion. Fission is used in nuclear power stations. Fusion is when the nuclei of atoms are forced together and release energy. It is a powerful force that could launch payloads into outer space. Effectively nuclear powered spaceships could reach speeds as high as thousands of kilometers per second. This would make travel to Mars possible within weeks. With nuclear power, spacecraft could effectively be launched out of the solar system.
Ostap Ruda Kevych and Masayuki Sono are the co-founders of Clouds Architecture Office. The team is studying the possibility of using comets to travel through outer space. Comets would be used like floating space stations that would transport astronauts throughout outer space. The idea is use a comet's resources to sustain the mission. The comets would produce energy to fuel and provide oxygen. A bit far-fetched, but with billions of possible comets, the possibility to use them as a source of transport is an interesting concept for the future of space travel.
Space travel has been studied for centuries. The twentieth century saw the development of the rocket and space travel became possible. Although currently, rockets remain the most possible source for launching payloads out of the Earth's atmosphere, scientists are studying theories that would make space travel possible without the high cost of rocket power. The next few decades are likely to see further development in space travel. Some day it may be possible, not only to find a way to launch equipment into space, but to perfect space travel for people.
Written by Garrett Parker
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