New Patent Merges Hyperloop with Space Technology for Quite a Ride (w. Video)


Yes, it’s a little far-out to think of a Hyperloop that could be configured to launch space vehicles. But, if anybody can do it, it’s James Powell, who was awarded the prestigious “2000 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Engineering ” for his work on maglev trains with his research partner, Gordon Danby.

In that concept, a futuristic train without tracks or an engine but with strong superconducting electromagnets keeps the cars elevated and propels them, providing power enough to levitate heavy passenger or freight train cars at very high­ speeds and with a nearly friction-­free ride. The concept of using magnetic forces is known as a maglev train (“magnetic” + “levitation”).

Although Danby died last year, Powell has picked up where the two left off. The Maglev Space Launch patent he’s filed marries two seemingly unrelated technologies of Hyperloop and space technology. In this interaction, a version of the Hyperloop will be able to launch space vehicles without requiring a rocket engine. The recent patent application includes a newly optimized design for launching small satellites on the order of 100 kilograms.


Powell calls his patent pending maglev space launch system the “SpaceTram” — a tram that literally takes you into space.

Here’s how the Hyperloop works in conjunction with SpaceTram. An airtight tube has a magnetically levitated vehicle within it. As friction is minimized, the vehicle can travel at more than airline speeds. The Maglev Space Launch patent outlines how one end of the airtight tube is lifted so that it forms an angle with the Earth.  The vehicle inside the tube would travel at high speeds and would come close to Earth’s escape velocity as it exits the open end of the tube. Since the vehicle is traveling almost at escape velocity, it would travel away from the Earth or start revolving around the Earth like a satellite.

It’s a second generation variant that’s intended for reusable capsules with humans aboard and low g-force — a range that begins at 2-3 g acceleration in the Hyperloop launch tube and an elevated exit at high altitude with aerodynamic deceleration lessening to 1 g. The low acceleration is intentional, so that more of the general public could possibly access it.

“The high cost of launching payloads into space using rockets has kept the brakes on a major space race among technologically advanced countries,” according to Powell. The SpaceTram patent application could change that with its electromagnetic system. It could be utilized to launch a craft for carrying payloads such as projectiles, launch vehicles, spacecraft, aircraft, missiles, and rockets.

The idea may have been inspired from conventional coil guns that are also known to utilize an electromagnetic projectile accelerator. They would include stationary coils aligned along an axis for acceleration of a magnetic projectile down the launch tube. Each individual coil would be sequentially energized as the projectile approaches and would electromagnetically pull or push the projectile along the launch tube.

The electromagnetic launcher utilizes magnetic levitation, stabilization, and propulsion and employs a transverse direct current magnetic field. That field is generated in superconducting cables extending along a launch tube to eliminate mechanical contact and friction of the payload with a launch tube wall.

One critic commented: “So, a really big rifle, and you are the bullet. Umm, at first this seems awesome, but it seems with some rough math that it would have to be MASSIVE to work. Too large to effectively build. If anyone could figure out a way to make it plausible though, it would be him.”

Dr. Powell, your reputation precedes you.

Shout Out to Deepak Gupta with thanks for the video, photograph, lead, and other info: @PatentYogi

About the Author

Carolyn grew up in Stafford Springs, CT, home of the half-mile tar racetrack. She’s an avid Formula One fan (this year’s trip to the Monza race was memorable). With a Ph.D. from URI, she draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+

  • It seems wonderful idea, but basic math disagree. With 3g (30 m.s-2) acceleration is need more than 263 seconds to reach 1. escape velocity (7,9 km/s). With 3g it will need travel 1040 km to reach that speed. Tallest human made structure is about 1000 m (1 km). Let say that 1040 km long tube should by at end in about 10 km high (10 times higher then any structure of now), still it need to be 1040 km long. Do you imagine this structure?
    Even with biggest acceptable acceleration fo human – 8g – is still need 390 km of travelling to reach 7,9 km per s speed.
    And need to be powered in all way up to end. I do not like to calculate needed energy. Only dimension is out of possibility.

    • Steve Hanley

      You are quite correct. But real world constraints seldom trouble any of the ideas that originate in Elon Musk’s head. Rockets that return themselves to earth? Ridiculous. Boring tunnels underground 30 levels deep? Insane. The Hyperloop itself is fraught with nearly insurmountable practical issues.

      Clear your mind. Imagine what is possible. Don’t focus on negative thoughts! In the World of Elon, “Never say never” is the order of the day.

      • I like great idea – one the most prosperous and funny time in US and rest of the World was when Kennedy ask to go to Moon. All Americans went to great achievement, We, on other side of Iron curtain, were trying the same.
        We need leaders to inspire us. Elon is one of them. But still things need to be great and still physically and economically doable.
        Electromobility – yes, Hyperloop – yes, Space X – yes. Going to Mars – in some time yes. Space elevator – yes and more likely than SpaceTram. 100 % of renewable – yes. All of them need time, money and a lot of change.

    • Doug Bursnall

      It would only need to be able to replicate the acceleration rate of current rockets to be viable, which do not need 1000km but less than 100km. This 100km does not need to be vertical, so 99km could be in a loop with the last 1km or so turning upwards to the appropriate trajectory. If necessary a small Rocket (like on space ship one) could be utilized as a boost for the final push once exited the tube.

  • Jim Seko

    This is not a new concept. It has one major problem: Slamming into a relatively thick atmosphere at escape velocity. The aero drag would be enormous! The only way this could work is to have the top of the tube at an altitude much higher than the highest mountain.