Monday, Jan. 22, 2007 | 7:12 a.m.
By Launce Rake
Las Vegas Sun
Southern Nevada has been on the frontier of a lot of things for a long time: gambling, prostitution, cheap thrills. Even nuclear testing and weapons development.
And now a California company sees us on the frontier of space.
LaunchPoint Technologies of Goleta says it is developing technology to send packages into orbit from a large, open and secure area.
Think the Nevada Test Site, an hour's drive northwest of Las Vegas.
LaunchPoint Vice President Jim Fiske said the company's system involves some patented modifications of an older technology - magnetic levitation - that essentially would accelerate a package along a circular track and then whip it into space at more than 20,000 mph.
The technology could launch small satellites, including weapons, or could be used to send material into space to support manned missions.
The U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research has put about $600,000 into the project, and the company is refining its analysis of the cost of actually building a launch system.
Although more precise figures won't be known for a few more months, "our numbers are looking pretty good, even better than we expected," Fiske said.
Vicki Stein, a spokeswoman for the Air Force research office, said the Goleta project is worth investigating.
"We're interested in being able to pursue ways to send microsatellites into space," she said. "We're looking into all those possibilities on a fundamental research level."
The system is based on creating acceleration - enough to make a 175-pound man weigh about a million pounds.
While such gravity is lethal, Fiske said LaunchPoint is preparing a proposal for NASA's Institute of Advanced Concepts next month that might make it possible to take far more perishable packages into orbit.
"I can't talk about that yet," he said.
Fiske stressed that the company is a long way from building a magnetic-levitation launch system at the Test Site or anywhere else. The Nevada site has been mentioned only because it meets some of the basic requirements for the technology.
"What we need for the launch ring is a big, flat, open area that is a long ways from people," Fiske said. Dry lake beds such as the kind found at the Test Site or elsewhere in the Mojave Desert fit the bill, but so does Edwards Air Force Base. The Test Site also comes with the requisite security.
He said the hypersonic speed of the projectile to be fired from the launch ring would create a sonic boom, but the effect of the boom would probably be limited.
"Our projectiles will leave the atmosphere so fast that even the sonic boom probably won't travel far," Fiske said. "In Las Vegas, they probably won't hear our launches at all."
He said the goal of the company now is to get the Defense Department, NASA or even another commercial investor to support the effort.
"Ultimately, assuming that we are successful, this is going to change our relationship to space," Fiske said.
The cost of taking something into orbit is now about $5,000 a pound. He said the goal would be to lower the cost to $100 a pound. That would make launching satellites or supporting manned space missions a lot cheaper.
This isn't the first time the Test Site, which has been home to above- and below-ground nuclear test explosions and where federal officials hope to store 77,000 tons of radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, has been discussed as a site for orbital launches.
In 1999 a company called Kistler Aerospace went as far as gaining a permit from Test Site managers at the Energy Department for launching the company's two-stage rocket. But the company never launched a rocket from the Test Site and according to its most recent statements has moved operations to Australia.
Still, there is a history there. Bob Loux, executive director of Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects, a state agency battling the Yucca Mountain waste dump, noted that the state supported the Kistler Aerospace effort.
"The state has always been supportive of non-nuclear related activities at the Test Site," Loux said.
Peggy Maze Johnson, executive director of the group Citizen Alert, which has battled the federal government's weapons and waste-related projects at the Test Site, said an orbital launch system would be a good project for the site.
"Anything except bombs," said Johnson, who is protesting federal plans to detonate a huge, non-nuclear explosive on the Test Site. "And not nuclear waste. We have to look at different alternative uses at the Test Site."
Darwin Morgan, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Energy Department agency that runs the Test Site, said the proposal is one that the government would consider.
But first, the federal government would have to ensure that such a project would not interfere with any of the ongoing national security projects at the Test Site, Morgan said. Typically, projects slated for the Test Site also have a sponsor from another government agency, he added.