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What is a Space Pier?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 21, 2024
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The Space Pier is a novel space launch concept, conceived by the nanotechnologist and computer scientist Dr. Josh Hall. Dr. Hall presents the Space Pier concept occasionally at conferences, frequently in conjunction with molecular manufacturing, which would likely be necessary to make the concept cost-effective and realistic to implement.

A Space Pier is a structure 100 km (62 miles) tall and 300 km (186 miles) long. A payload goes up one of the 100 km towers in an elevator, then is launched along a horizontal track for 300 km using an electromagnetic mass driver. At only 10 Gs for 80 seconds, which is a tolerable level for humans with padded seats, a projectile can be ejected clear out of the atmosphere. Three humdred kilometers is enough track to take a projectile from zero to around 8.2 km/s (5.1 miles/s) using contemporary electromagnetics technology. If sensitive cargo is not a consideration, even higher accelerations can be used, of magnitude required to reach escape velocity (11.2 km/s or 7.0 miles/s).

The Space Pier is a compromise that was dreamed up in an effort to circumvent several problems of other common post-rocket space tech proposals - a space elevator/orbital skyhook, and an earth-based mass driver, also known as an electromagnetic accelerator or rail gun. The other two proposals get more attention and press, but a Space Pier would be less expensive and more effective than both. On his webpage introducing the idea, Dr. Hall makes the observation that the density of air at 100 km altitude is a mere millionth the density at sea level, making it significantly easier to accelerate a payload to high velocity. A space elevator would get in the way of satellites, which would inevitably collide with it unless taking a geosynchronous orbit. It would also need to be much taller than 100 km, more on the order of 10,000 km or more.

Because it is 100 km tall rather than 10,000 km, a Space Pier could be made from a material than can in theory be mass-produced - diamond. This is in contrast to a space elevator, which would need to be built from atomically precise buckytubes, or carbon nanotubes, in order to support its own weight. Diamonds can already be synthesized in relatively large quantities for moderate cost, but to create the quantities necessary to build a Space Pier megastructure, entirely new manufacturing processes would be required. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Hall proposes molecular manufacturing. The 100 km structure height would also put the Space Pier out of the range of most space junk, which is quickly drawn into a freefall at that altitude.

According to Dr. Hall's calculations, lifting a 10-tonne payload up a 100 km elevator and then accelerating it to 8.2 km/s would only consume about 5,000 US dollars (USD) worth of electricity, working out to about half a dollar per kilogram. This is significantly better than the current launch cost of 10,000 USD per kilogram. The projectile would not have enough velocity to escape the earth at this level of acceleration, but would circle all the way around the planet and stabilize at an altitude of approximately 340 km (211 m). The payload would need to make some slight maneuvers on its own in order to make sure its orbit becomes a regular circle. To escape the earth and reach interplanetary orbits, mass drivers could be put in space as waypoints, or conventional rockets could be used to take the payload out of the earth's gravity well.

One hundred kilometers sounds like an extremely tall height for a series of towers, but note that towers approaching one kilometer (0.62 m) in height are already under construction, and the materials we use for skyscrapers are relatively conventional. Progress in the 21st century will allow us to manufacture in bulk things that were previously expensive, including diamond. The Space Pier is an example of a visionary future application of this technology.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon294186 — On Sep 30, 2012

It doesn't need to be 100km tall. We can do it with existing structures 30 or 40 km in height, and the worst disaster would be a reactor meltdown. It's all technology we have now (sort of).

By anon289520 — On Sep 04, 2012

The cable for an elevator would be by no traditional means a small one.

The mass that would fall to earth in most likely failures of a tether are relatively small and light, but fairly strong so picked up energy would be damaging during initial impact. The pier appears to have more earth mass.

By anon90679 — On Jun 17, 2010

Look, both of these concepts, the space elevator and the space pier, have some serious problems that would need to be overcome. The shortfall for the elevator is simple. If it should fall, it would immediately supersede any and all natural and man made disasters. The damage it could do is nearly incalculable.

The space pier is only marginally less damaging if something should ever happen to it.

We need another, far safer and cheaper, alternative to the problem of payload delivery. I would like to suggest a large reusable dirigible that could take a spacecraft to the edge of space and release it. The dirigible would then return to Earth ready for yet another ascent while the spacecraft hurtles outwards into space propelled by its own rockets. The spacecraft then returns to Earth also under its own jet power to land at the same aerospace port it took off from.

This would cost much less than either the space elevator or the space pier. It would be much more cost effective and, would be much less of a target for terrorists or natural disasters.

with respect, J.T. Davenport

By anon22009 — On Nov 26, 2008

Increasing building height a factor of hundred just like that? Then I believe the space elevator more. I would only need one small cable, not hundreds of towers. Sure it is longer, but it in tension not compression, that makes it far easier to make.

This is just a ridiculously expensive version of the launch loop. A launch loop could be build today without having to wait for cheap mass production of diamond.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
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