NASA‘s Towed Glider Air-Launch System will launch small payloads, like mini-satellites, into space more efficiently and at a fraction it currently costs, according to officials. In a spree of ingenuity, researchers have devised a launch system comprised of a double piggyback of sorts. First, a drone will fly off the ground and into the upper atmosphere, carrying a glider. The glider in turn carries a rocket, which ultimately carries the payload meant for Earth’s orbit. Once the drone reaches 40,000 feet, it decouples the glider which immediately turns on its on-board booster. Once high enough, the glider will decouple the rocket which fires for the final climb into space.
Last year, in October, NASA tested a one-third-scale prototype twin-fuselage towed glider. The test run was successful, absent the final rocket stage.
Ultimately, however, the most efficient and cost-effective solution for launching things into space might be a reusable rocket. SpaceX recognizes this and is working hard to make this happen. According to CEO Elon Musk, a reusable rocket could cut costs 100 fold. The engineering challenges, though, are enormous. At the beginning of the year, SpaceX executed a flawless launch of an unmanned cargo capsule headed for the international space station, but technical problems spoiled a historic bid to land part of its used rocket booster on a floating platform. The way things are going, they might not be that far off. The space industry is looking mighty good at the moment.