Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Space Shopping: Getting The Goods To Market

So, when we finally get hundreds of people living in "The Space Station of Tomorrow," how are we going to send them supplies? People have needs, you know, and as far as I know, Wal-Mart hasn't yet opened any new stores in orbit. (This is probably due to objections, which will one day be filed with the space station governing council, by concerned station planners, who want to protect mom and pop space ventures, ensure an adequate rate of pay, and prevent traffic congestion. It's probably already on the court docket for the year 2027.) Since a handy department store is currently out of the question, space visionaries had better start looking for another solution. Now, I grant you, there's going to have to be a whole lot of self-sufficiency going on. All those intrepid adventurers are going to have to forgo squeamishness about enhanced recycling of everything, from vehicle parts to human waste. It goes with the territory, but realistically, even in a Utopia of recycling efficiency, things wear out. Computers, clothing, gaskets and gadgets all have a limited lifespan. How is the provident home-world going to get the necessary care packages out to her wandering children? Sending rockets and shuttles one after another is too cost prohibitive. There's got to be a better way.

Would a giant circle of superconducting magnets do the trick? No doubt, most of us have asked that question at one point or another. Well, the U.S. Air Force has commissioned the answer, and David Shiga has written up the results of the preliminary study, in New Scientist Space. Boiling down Shiga's explanation--put a sled on the huge round track, 2 kilometers across, with cargo encased in a cone-shaped shell, and head to the races. The idea is that magnetic forces would gradually, over a period of hours, increase the speed of the load to about 10 kilometers a second, and then divert it into a launch tube, where a ramp set at thirty degrees would send the cargo flying. Friction from the tunnel would slow the cone down a bit, but not enough to keep it from breaking orbit. A rocket on the back of the cone would add steering ability. Easy as pie. Mind you, everything sent this way would have to be durable goods, be it satellite, food and water, other essentials like chocolate, or even weapons (this is the Air Force, after all.) We're talking 2,000gs of pressure here. Yes, I said 2,000 times the pressure of Earth's gravity, so this is strictly an inanimate object kind of transport system. Anything living that tried to hitch a ride wouldn't survive long enough to complain about the turbulence.

The preliminary study was encouraging enough for the Air Force to fund the next round of inquiry. This time it's a two year analysis, and hopefully will look more in depth at the healthy list of possible obstacles, chief among them being the atmosphere itself. There is the potential that overheating and trajectory difficulties from friction and wind could make the scheme unworkable. The team involved with the research is optimistic, however, that these problems are solvable. If all goes well in the next phase of study, the team hopes to build a small prototype of the ring to further test the feasibility of the concept. After that, they look for funding for the big kahuna.

Another notable concern about the project is that, with it's capacity to aim weapons anywhere in the world, the launch ring could itself become a primary target. That's understandable; I doubt the rest of the world would be happy about the potential weaponization of the launcher. However, that's what treaties (and missile defense systems) are for, and I suspect a few of the countries that could object might also have an item or two they want sent for a ride. I'm sure some kind of deal could be made to keep most countries happy. The rest of them aren't going to be happy with us anyway--that's where the missile defense system comes in.

If it all works, the giant loop-de-loop could provide a much cheaper method of getting goods that are tough enough to handle the trip out to where future space settlers will need them. They can start the first supermarket in space. Then they can open a chain of stores on all the multiple space stations that a constant flow of supplies will enable to mushroom throughout our friendly little solar system. Then an alien chain can come in to give them competition with cheaper, more abundant goods, produced by companies which outsource to the Gamma quadrant. Then injunctions and lawsuits will have to be filed to stop the big bad alien super-chain from unfair competition with the poor human mini-mart. Eventually, they're going to wonder why they didn't just let Wal-Mart set up shop in the beginning. Wal-Mart would have given The Andromeda Chain a run for their money.