GEO Rail

"Landing" Launch Loop payloads in a destination without rockets

Imagine a long and relatively heavy orbiting tether, running vertically from 29900 km radius, through GEO (42164 km), to a counterweight above, perhaps at (50000 km). The tether has a thin, passive conductive rail around it. The vehicle magnet rail pushes away from it by eddy current repulsion while traveling next to it, "held down" by Coriolis acceleration.

This is not the normal top of apogee capture system, where we launch into an orbit whose perigee transverse velocity matches a hanging tether at the right altitude. Instead, we launch the vehicle a little faster and a little later. That puts the vehicle in an orbit with an apogee trailing the tether. The vehicle will never get to that apogee, because we will slide in front of the tether below apogee, where we still have a high (1800 m/s) radial velocity. We will still match the tether's transverse velocity and altitude, though.

In the rotating tether frame of reference, the vehicle will approach from below at high speed, from the rear, and decelerate in the traverse ("horizontal") direction as it approaches the tether. The vehicle is rising radially, conserving angular momentum, and losing angular velocity as the radius increases. In the tether's rotating frame, this looks like Coriolis acceleration, equal to twice the velocity times the tether's angular velocity. The angular orbital velocity for a GEO tether is 7.2921E-5 radians per second, and the radial ("vertical") velocity will be around 1800 meters per second, so the Coriolis acceleration is 0.26 m/s2. If the vehicle misses the tether rendezvous, it will continue to accelerate retrograde in the rotating frame, with the backwards velocity turning into downwards Coriolis acceleration in the rotating frame, reaching apogee above the intended attach point but well below GEO.

The tether is made with not-excessively-tapered Kevlar. We will need many tons of it, especially at GEO, as an angular momentum bank. More mass is better for this system. THIS is where we put the hotels, the radiation shielding, and the heavy buffet tables for obese tourists.

We launch a vehicle off the launch loop at 10148.7 m/s, and with very good radar and some trim thrusters, we "land" on the bottom of the rail at 29979.7 km altitude. At that point, we have the same angular frequency and circular orbital velocity, and a large vertical velocity component, 1746.8 m/s .

As the vehicle slides up the tether, the weak gravity slows it down radially, as it accelerates forwards in orbit to remain on the "faster at higher altitude" tether.

As the vehicle slides upwards, it magnetically levitates/pushes against the east side of the rail with Coriolis acceleration. That is 26 centimeters per second squared at 1800 m/s vertically, and 7 centimeters per second squared at 400 m/s, our speed as we approach GEO altitude. The Coriolis acceleration and the eddy currents both reduce with relative velocity - most convenient! The vertical deceleration (gravity minus rotational centrifugal acceleration) decreases to zero as we approach GEO, still with significant velocity, though with less than the velocity of a frictionless ballistic because of the eddy currents.

As the vehicle approaches GEO, it is still moving fast, which is good, because it has 12000 kilometers to travel. The trip will take about 4 hours. About 10000 meters below GEO station, the rail surface changes to increase eddy current drag, slowing down the vehicle. The vehicle reaches the drag section at 400 meters per second, and deceleration increases from a few millimeters per second to 10 m/s2, a bit more than 1 gee (with passengers facing backwards, backs into chairs). The vehicle slows to 25 meters per second about 40 meters below the station, and with the aid of some linear motors, reduces deceleration and velocity to zero over the next 5 seconds. The payload or passenger compartment is plucked off the magnet-rail and wing, and pushed into the station through an airlock.

Since the tether rail is not magnetic or active (that would be far too heavy for a 12000 kilometer gossamer structure) the vehicle magnet-rail will need to wrap partly around it in some way. 26 cm/s2 Coriolis acceleration is far too weak to hold the vehicle against a rippling tether at high speed. For example, a ripple with a 20 kilometer wavelength and a 20 meter peak-to-peak amplitude will shake the vehicle back and forth at 0.3 gees ( 12x Coriolis ) and a period of 11 seconds - a mild roller coaster. Such a transverse ripple will not be a standing wave, but traveling up or down the tether at around 1 km per second. It will be a challenge to remove it, perhaps by periodic transverse shaking at GEO by the large momentum mass. It would be more difficult to remove by shaking the bottom counterweight vertically, inducing Coriolis accelerations, because a lot of power is required.

We can reverse the process. Using a magnetic accelerator to launch a vehicle down a rail on the west side of the tether, we falling off the end in a transfer orbit back to the upper atmosphere. This restores most of the GEO rail momentum. We will probably need to make up some energy and momentum with plasma rocket engines at GEO station, especially if we accumulate more upward vehicles than downward ones. But overall, the energy will be tiny compared to the the launch loop energies, and we can float a lot of solar cell around GEO as part of our "momentum anchor".

As part of an overall "pick up your litter" ethic, we should make sure the plasma rocket engines are offset so they are firing exhaust away from the rest of the geosynchronous ring, and that the rocket exhaust is traveling fast enough to escape the solar system ( >16 km/sec at noon when the rockets are pushing retrograde to the Earth's orbit around the sun, >76 km/sec (!!) at midnight, when the rockets are pushing retrograde ).

A Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine operates optimally at 50 km/sec, so operation at 80 km/sec is close to optimum. The reaction mass is argon, which can be frozen at -200C with a density of 1600 kg/m3 and a vapor pressure of 0.1 atmosphere for transit from earth. We will need about 1 kg of argon reaction mass shipped up for every 50 kg of uncompensated mass shipped up from Earth, and we will expend about 2000 kilowatt hours operating the plasma rockets to exhaust that reaction mass.

If we de-orbit GEO station trash much faster than we receive payloads (aiming for empty and lifeless portions of the ocean) we can add more momentum by exploiting Coriolis force acceleration. We can also receive mass (and momentum) from the moon, or launch mass from the loop in slingshot orbits around the moon. However, the moon will not always be conveniently located for this, and vehicles may make many 20 day orbits before arriving with a suitable orbital position.

A slightly stronger tether can swing like a pendulum. That allows vehicles to arrive from the launch loop with higher angular velocity, and leave with lower angular velocity. This variation needs further study.

The rocket thrust needed by GEOrail will be pure velocity correction, centimeters per second if we've done our radar and orbital mechanics calculations correctly. If we miss, we just reenter normally - a delay, but not a disaster. Besides a little correction exhaust, and whatever we need to add to for momentum restoration, the system is mass conservative and mostly energy-recycling.

More rockets bite the dust ...

Operation of an M288 rail base

A similar rail system can supply the M288 server sky orbits


M288 rail bases for orbital debris capture

Server sky thinsats are cheaper to launch if they are lighter, but below a minimum mass-to-area ratio, the orbits are unstable under light pressure. However, we can add mass ballast to a very light satellite, using gram-weight chunks of space debris. The processing is simple, just let the debris shatter as it is collision-captured inside a cornucopia-shaped funnel. Larger chunks can be cut apart at a simple processing plant at the M288 rail base, smaller chunks can be welded together.

Capture vehicles can drop below the tether, in intercept orbits where the debris crosses the equatorial plane. Depending on their orbit, they can return to the same rail base, but more likely a different rail base will be more convenient.