Launching anything into orbit has always been a costly exercise but the Startram Project is proposing building a train capable of transporting “300,000 tons of payload into orbit for less than $40/kg”, a considerable saving from the current cost of around $10,000 per kilogram.
The concept involves constructing a maglev (magnetic levitation) train able to reach orbital velocities and launching it into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The idea has been proposed by the inventor of superconducting magnetic levitation, Dr James Powell, and Dr George Maise, a mechanical/aeronautical engineer.
The Startram is technically feasible but the scale of the project would be akin to constructing the world’s largest railgun. The maglev track would need to be around 1,600 kilometers long and the end of it would need to be raised to a height of 20km. This would apparently be possible through maglev technology as well, according to the inventors. A specialised vacuum tube would need to be constructed that would prevent the Startram from tearing itself to bits by reaching near-orbit speed while at sea-level.
Sandia National Laboratories, a division of Lockheed Martin, have given the concept a so-called “murder-squad” examination and have declared the mechanics of it sound. The technology needed to achieve a LEO train system exists, it’s now apparently a matter of scaling it up and funding it.