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Some developments in Space Sciences


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After receiving a $500,000 Phase II contract from the U.S. Department of Defense Small Business Technology Transfer Program, LaunchPoint engineers are attempting to create a magnetic space launch device.


The current LaunchPoint Technologies design has a large ring of superconducting magnets that would fling the object into space, or into orbit around the world.  A high-speed accelerator would whip an object weighing up to 220 pounds around a circular vacuum tunnel that has a 1.5-mile-radius.  The object, which is encased in a polycarbonate, cone-shaped sabot for protection, would be attached to a magnetic sled.  Electromagnetic motors located inside the tunnel would continue to accelerate the unit until it reaches its top speed of 10 kilometers per second, which is when laser and pyrotechnic devices would help separate the cone from the sled.


The cone will then launch towards space at a reported 8 kilometers per second.  Any device launched in this manner would have to be able to withstand a minimum of 2,000 Gs -- the equivalent to 2,000 times the force of gravity. LaunchPoint's technology is strictly for cargo. The projectile will contain a small rocket engine and avionics, which would allow it to steer once it leaves Earth's orbit.


A main selling point of the technology is that it would make it much cheaper to send payloads into space.  Current rocket-launched payloads cost around $4,000 per pound, while magnetic systems will launch payloads at a much lower $750 per pound cost.


There are several roadblocks that currently stand in the way of major progress of the project.  The first aspect under consideration is how to prevent overheating -- the objects launched could burn up attempting to leave the Earth's atmosphere the same way a meteorite would burn up on highspeed entry.


Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Alan Epstein has warned that the system could be used as a weapon.  The U.S. Air Force, however, hopes to be able to launch small satellites into orbit, though it is unknown what types of satellites the military plans on launching.


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A French-led satellite project has launched into space on a mission to discover Earth-like planets that are beyond our solar system.  The $225-million COROT project is based around a telescope that is expected to find planets that range in size and shape, according to Claude Catala, a researcher working on the project.  The telescope will evaluate more than 120,000 stars while specifically looking for tiny dips in brightness that are caused by planets passing in front of stars.


Astronomers are aware of the existence of other planets, however, current technology only allows for the accurate identification of Jupiter-style gas giants.  The French National Space Studies Center is working alongside partners from the European Space Agency, Spain, Germany, Austria, Brazil and Belgium.


The mission is expected to last approximately 2.5 years, with phases split into 6-month durations.  The spacecraft will point towards objects near the center section of the Milky Way or towards stars off center.  Researchers also plan on studying the stars to learn more about their interior behavior.


The COROT project is expected to help set the stage for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Kepler project, which aims to search for Earth-sized planets that have orbits somewhat similar to Earth's.  The Kepler probe, carrying a 37.4-inch telescope, is expected to discover up to 50 extrasolar planets.  The NASA Kepler project is scheduled to run four years, starting in 2008.


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