While trains that have stations in outer space might sound like something out of a steampunk science fiction novel, proponents of the StarTram system feel that it is a technology that is truly worth looking into. The system, in theory, would operate on magnetic levitation principles that may be familiar to many people as a mass transit technology. Essentially, the system would work by launching vehicles along a track that consists of some form of launch tube.
However, there are several different types of proposed technology that would make up that system, and the simplest models wouldn’t put advanced maglev devices to use in the way later ones would.
The Generation 1 design would be for freight alone, and could launch objects from a mountain. These objects would be raised into orbit, and it has been suggested that the system could launch around 150,000 tons of material into orbit each year if it were constructed. It has also been suggested that the project could be completed by 2020 according, if funding was provided immediately.
Generation 2 of StarTram would require a massive mega-structure to operate, but it could function with reusable manned capsules. By utilizing a low acceleration maglev track that would potentially rise above 96% of the Earth’s atmosphere, the Generation 2 system would only force capsules to experience around 1g of force. This might possibly help attract members of the regular population to take trips into space.
While it seems that the StarTram system is still a long way off by many accounts, it truly is a feasible method of providing cost effective travel into space. Perhaps, in the not so distant future, trains might be taking clients to posh apartments on space colonies. The opportunities for scientific research, satellite communications, colonization and orbital casinos are endless.
Here is a nifty PDF file from NASA that lays out the concept in detail.