Musk Says Hyperloop Could Work On Mars… Maybe Even Better!

Elon Musk has always been up-front about his desire to see humans settle on the Red Planet. In the past few years, he has said that one of his main reasons for establishing SpaceX was to see humanity colonize Mars. He has also stated that he believes that using Mars as a “backup location” for humanity might be necessary for our survival, and even suggested we use nukes to terraform it.

And in his latest speech extolling the virtues of colonizing Mars, Musk listed another reason. The Hyperloop – his concept for a high-speed train that relies steel tubes, aluminum cars and maglev technology to go really fast – might actually work better in a Martian environment. The announcement came as part of the award ceremony for the Hyperloop Pod Competition, which saw 100 university teams compete to create a design for a Hyperloop podcar.

It was the first time that Musk has addressed the issue of transportation on Mars. In the past, he has spoken about establishing a colony with 80,000 people, and has also discussed his plans to build a Mars Colonial Transporter to transport 100 metric tons (220,462 lbs) of cargo or 100 people to the surface of Mars at a time (for a fee of $50,000 apiece). He has also discussed communications, saying that he would like to bring the internet to Mars once a colony was established.

Artist's concept of what a Hyperloop pod car might look like. Credit: Tesla
Artist’s concept of what a Hyperloop pod car’s interior might look like. Credit: Tesla

But in addressing transportation, Musk was able to incorporate another important concept that he has come up with, and which is also currently in development. Here on Earth, the Hyperloop would rely on low-pressure steel tubes and a series of aluminum pod cars to whisk passengers between major cities at speeds of up to 1280 km/h (800 mph). But on Mars, according to Musk, you wouldn’t even need tubes.

As Musk said during the course of the ceremony: “On Mars you basically just need a track. You might be able to just have a road, honestly. [It would] go pretty fast… It would obviously have to be electric because there’s no oxygen. You have to have really fast electric cars or trains or things.”

Essentially, Musk was referring to the fact that since Mars has only 1% the air pressure of Earth, air resistance would not be a factor. Whereas his high-speed train concept requires tubes with very low air pressure to reach the speed of sound here on Earth, on Mars they could reach those speeds out in the open. One might say, it actually makes more sense to build this train on Mars rather than on Earth!

The Hyperloop Pod Competition, which was hosted by SpaceX, took place between Jan 27th and 29th. The winning entry came from MIT, who’s design was selected from 100 different entries. Their pod car, which is roughly 2.5 meters long and 1 meter wide (8.2 by 3.2 feet), would weight 250 kg (551 lbs) and be able to achieve an estimated cruise speed of 110 m/s (396 km/h; 246 mph). While this is slightly less than a third of the speed called for in Musk’s original proposal, this figure representing cruising speed (not maximum speed), and is certainly a step in that direction.

Team MIT's Hyperloop pod car design. Credit: MIT/Twitter
Team MIT’s Hyperloop pod car design. Credit: MIT/Twitter

And while Musk’s original idea proposed that the pod be lifted off the ground using air bearings, the MIT team’s design called for the use of electrodynamic suspension to keep itself off the ground. The reason for this, they claimed, is because it is “massively simpler and more scalable.” In addition, compared to the other designs’ levitation systems, theirs had one of the lowest drag coefficients.

The team – which consists of 25 students with backgrounds in aeronautics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and business management – will spend the next five months building and testing their pod. The final prototype will participate in a trial run this June, where it will run on the one-mile Hyperloop Test Track at SpaceX’s headquarters in California.

Since he first unveiled it back in 2013, Musk’s Hyperloop concept has been the subject of considerable interest and skepticism. However, in the past few years, two companies – Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) and Hyperloop Technologies – have emerged with the intention of seeing the concept through to fruition. Both of these companies have secured lucrative partnerships since their inception, and are even breaking ground on their own test tracks in California and Nevada.

And with a design for a podcar now secured, and tests schedules to take place this summer, the dream of a “fifth mode of transportation” is one step closer to becoming a reality! The only question is, which will come first – Hyperloops connecting major cities here on Earth, or running passengers and freight between domed settlements on Mars?

Only time will tell! And be sure to check out Team MIT’s video:

Further Reading: SpaceXhyperloop.it.edu

Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Might Become A Reality After All

Fans of Elon Musk and high-speed transit are sure to remember the Hyperloop. Back in 2013, Musk dropped the idea into the public mind with a paper that claimed that using the right technology, a high-speed train could make the trip from San Fransisco to Los Angeles in just 35 minutes.

However, Musk also indicated that he was too busy to build such a system, but that others were free to take a crack at it. And it seems that a small startup from El Segundo, California is prepared to do just that.

That company is JumpStartFund, a startup that combines elements of crowdfunding and crowd-sourcing to make innovation happen. Dirk Ahlborn, the CEO of JumpStartFund, believes they can build Musk’s vision of a solar-powered transit system that would transport people at up to speeds of 1280 km/h (800 mph).

Together with SpaceX, JumpStartFund has created a subsidiary called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), Inc. to oversee all the necessary components to creating the system. This included bringing together 100 engineers from all over the country who work for such giants of industry as Boeing, NASA, Yahoo!, Airbus, SpaceX, and Salesforce.

Concept art of what a completed Hyperloop would look like amidst the countryside. Credit: HTT/JumpStartFund
Concept art of what a completed Hyperloop would look like amidst the countryside. Credit: HTT/JumpStartFund

Last week, these engineers came together for the first time to get the ball rolling, and what they came up with a 76-page report (entitled “Crowdstorm”) that spelled out exactly how they planned to proceed. By their own estimates, they believe they can complete the Hyperloop in just 10 years, and at a cost of $16 billion.

A price tag like that would be sure to scare most developers away. However, Ahlborn is undeterred and believes that all obstacles, financial or otherwise, can be overcome. As he professed in an interview with Wired this week: “I have almost no doubt that once we are finished, once we know how we are going to build and it makes economical sense, that we will get the funds.”

The HTT report also covered the basic design and engineering principles that would go into the building of the train, as Musk originally proposed it. Basically, this consists of pods cars that provide their own electricity through solar power, and which are accelerated through a combination of linear induction motors and low air pressure.

Much has been made of this latter aspect of the idea, and has often compared to the kinds of pneumatic tubes that used to send messages around office buildings in the mid-20th century. But of course, what is called for with the Hyperloop is bit more sophisticated.

Concept art showing different "classes" for travel. Credit: HTT
Concept art showing different “classes” for travel, which would include business class for those who can afford it. Credit: HTT/JumpStartFund

Basically, the Hyperloop will operate by providing each capsule with a soft air cushion to float on, avoiding direct contact with rails or the tube, while electromagnetic induction is used to speed up or slow the capsules down, depending on where they are in the transit system.

However, the HTT engineers indicated that such a system need not be limited to California. As it says in the report: “While it would of course be fantastic to have a Hyperloop between LA and SF as originally proposed, those aren’t the only two cities in the US and all over the world that would seriously benefit from the Hyperloop. Beyond the dramatic increase in speed and decrease in pollution, one of the key advantages the Hyperloop offers over existing designs for high-speed rail is the cost of construction and operations.”

The report also indicated the kind of price bracket they would be hoping to achieve. As it stands, HTT’s goal is “to keep the ticket price between LA and SF in the $20-$30 range,” with double that amount for return tickets. But with an overall price tag of $16 billion, the report also makes allowances for going higher: “[Our] current projected cost is closer to $16 billion,” they claim, “implying a need for a higher ticket price, unless the loop transports significantly more than 7.4 million annually, or the timeline for repayment is extended.”

In addition, the report also indicates that they are still relying heavily on Musk’s alpha document for much of their cost assessment. As a result, they can’t be specific on pricing or what kinds of revenues the Hyperloop can be expected to generate once its up and running.

The Hyperloop, as originally conceived within Musk's alpha document. Credit: Tesla Motors
The Hyperloop, as originally conceived within Musk’s alpha document. Credit: Tesla Motors

Also, there’s still plenty of logistical issues that need to be worked out, not to mention the hurdles of zoning, local politics and environmental assessments. Basically, HTT can look forward to countless challenges before they even begin to break ground. And since they are depending on crowdfunding to raise the necessary funds, it is not even certain whether or not they will be able to meet the burden of paying for it.

However, both Ahlborn and the HTT engineering team remain optimistic. Ahlborn believes the financial hurdles will be overcome, and if there was one thing that came through in the team’s report, it was the belief that something like the Hyperloop needs to happen in the near future. As the  team wrote in the opening section of “Crowdstorm”:

“It quickly becomes apparent just how dramatically the Hyperloop could change transportation, road congestion and minimize the carbon footprint globally. Even without naming any specific cities, it’s apparent that the Hyperloop would greatly increase the range of options available to those who want to continue working where they do, but don’t wish to live in the same city, or who want to live further away without an unrealistic commute time; solving some of the major housing issues some metropolitan areas are struggling with.”

Only time will tell if the Hyperloop will become the “fifth mode of transportation” (as Musk referred to it initially) or just a pipe-dream. But when it was first proposed, it was clear that what the Hyperloop really needed was someone who believed in it and enough money to get it off the ground. As of now, it has the former. One can only hope the rest works itself out with time.

Further Reading: JumpStartFund, SpaceX/Hyperloop, Crowdstorm