Even as the US debates about the merits and demerits about embarking on manned space missions, a new type of rocket is steadily taking shape in the computers of Nasa scientists and engineers at various centres. Right now it is a concept and sounds like a thrilling sci-fi. But if it becomes a reality, rest assured that it will be the next giant leap in space, according to Nasa.
The revoluationary plan envisages designing and developing a wedge-shaped aircraft with scramjets which will be launched horizontally on an electrified track or gas-powered sled. The unusually-shaped aircraft would lift off reaching a whopping speed of Mach 10 which is 10 times the speed of sound within minutes.
Then with the help of the scramjets and wings it will fly into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Once it reaches this point a small payload canister or capsule which is similar to a rocket's second stage will fire off from a point close to the tail of the aircraft and zoom into orbit---it will shoot off either to a planet or perhaps even a star, says Nasa.
Once this manourvre is completed, the aircraft will return and get ready for another mission. Space experts says that it employs the concept of a resusable launch vehicle (RLV) which can bring down the launch costs. The development undoubtedly will be of interest to Indian space scientists because a RLV is also being designed at Isro's Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvanathanapuram.
Though the US plan, appears like a dream project at the moment, Nasa's Stan Starr, branch chief of the Applied Physics Laboratory at the Kennedy Space Centre, has emphasised that nothing in the design calls for brand new technology. However, he says, the system counts on a number of existing technologies which have to be pushed forward.
Nasa and American universities have already done significant research in the field including testing small scale tracks at Nasa's Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville where Wernher Von Braun developed the awesome Saturn engines which took Apollo to the moon.
As far as aircraft that would launch on the rail, there are already real world tests. To cite a few examples, these include the X-43A or the Hyper X-programme and the X-51 project. They have shown that scramjets will work and can achieve remarkable speed.
The Advanced Space Launch System is not a replacement of the space shuttle which is due to be phased out in 2011, but can be used to fly astronauts after unmanned missions chalk up enough successes.
Where will it head is worth watching keeping in view the Constellation scenario.
Get ready to toast a glass at moon parties this Saturday night .
On September 18,2010, moon lovers all over the world will observe the first ``International Observe the Moon Night.'' It is part of an outreach project to spur public interest in the moon and perhaps even amateur astronomy.
In 1609, when Galileo first focussed on the moon with his crude telescope, he expressed his admiration and wonder by writing: ``A most beautiful and rapturous sight to behold......it does not possess a smoothe and polished surface, but is rough and uneven and similar to the earth itself, is everywhere full of vast protuberances, deep chasms and sinuosities.''