Equatorial alpine regions offer several potential advantages for economizing on space launch. They are in the ideal latitudes for projectile space launch to equatorial orbits. Many high mountains near the equator are dormant volcanoes or extinct volcanoes. This means they might be used as launch points with relatively low environmental impact. Labor rates are low, which matters for space launch operations since these activities can be expensive. The process of evaluating launch sites like these will also offer opportunities for Project Persephone to help develop the economies in these poor regions. Project Persephone will look at ways to develop tourism, telecommunications, exports and renewable energy resources.
Ease of Launch
The equator offers a significant starting velocity for eastward orbits because of the rotation of the Earth: less energy is needed to achieve orbit. Admittedly, there are decreasing returns to lower latitudes: a point ten degrees north of the equator is rotating around the Earth's axis only slightly faster than a point on the equator itself. The ESA's Guiana Space Centre is about 5 degrees north of the equator. (The southernmost point in continental Europe is about 34 degrees north, which was not very economical for launching to GEO.) One company specializing mostly in GEO satellite launch, Sea Launch, steers an ocean-going launch platform to the equator.
If an additional goal is to avoid the cost and complexity of significant orbital plane changes to get to an equatorial orbit, launching from almost exactly on the equator is an advantage. These reasons help explain why Sea Launch shouldered the added logistical burdens of launching from sea -- if a satellite and its booster will need to sent by ship to the equator anyway, it might as well be launched at sea as well.
Besides Guiana Space Centre, there are (and have been) some launch facilities in developing countries very close to the equator, facing eastward over oceans. A now-disused launch site in Kenya, the San Marco Launch Platform, hosted 9 satellite launches, including the Uhuru satellite and might return to service under a deal with the Russian space agency. West Papua's Biak Island has a planned spaceport, from which satellites of up to 3900 kg1 might be air-launched in cooperation between the Indonesian space agency (LAPAN) and the Russian Federation's space agency.2 Brazil's Alcântara Launch Center is a little over 2 degrees south, and has launched dozens of sounding rockets.
Another advantage of the equator, from the point of view of safety if a launch fails, is that population density is relatively low. Much of the area within a degree or two of the equator is ocean surface (Pacific, Atlantic, Indian), thinly populated rain forest basin (Amazon, Congo), or desert-like high mountain ranges. Yet another advantage is that equatorial regions have a lot of dormant and extinct volcanoes (see below for their potential value.)
Launching from higher altitudes means launching in a thinner part of the atmosphere. This matters. Lower-stage rocket engine designs are typically optimized for a range of atmospheric pressures. Automatically compensating nozzles have been designed, like the twin linear aerospike, but have not yet been used in production. In general, narrowing the range of operating air pressures makes a rocket engine design easier. Starting from a high altitude is one way to do this.
More speculatively, for projectile space launch, high altitude offers two advantages:
(1) It reduces the heating of the projectile, so that ablative shielding doesn't consume as much of the vehicle's dry mass. Reentering space capsules can be as much as 20% ablative shield; a projectile transiting the atmosphere from sea level to vacuum might lose as much as 30% by weight.
(2) It reduces net air resistance on the way out of the atmosphere. This means less energy is required to reach orbital velocity, and (other things equal) it reduces the cost of the launcher. This factor is much more significant for projectile space launch than for rockets, because rockets can start slowly where the air is thicker and speed up as they rise into thinner air.
Reduced Labor Costs
Street vendor, Ecuador
Wages in most alpine equatorial regions are low, because all are located in relatively poor nations. Furthermore, high mountain areas in poor countries tend to have a low cost of living compared to the cities of such nations. For labor-intensive civil engineering of a launch site, low labor rates are clearly ideal. To the extent that ensuing launch operations require only low-to-medium skill levels as opposed to complex engineering knowledge (as with rocket launch), operational costs might be significantly reduced. Perhaps the low cost of site preparation and launch for Project HARP (est. $3000 per launch, in 1960 dollars) was because local manual labor in Barbados was relatively cheap. Gerald Bull's supergun project in Iraq probably also benefited from lower wage rates in northern Iraq.
Lower Environmental Impact
Kelimutu crater lake
A relatively large proportion of the higher peaks in equatorial regions are stratovolcanoes, most of which are extinct or dormant. Some of them are already "environmental disaster areas", hosting relatively little life, most of it transplated recently from elsewhere. There are usually no endangered species, so that proposals to launch from them are unlikely to face environmental political obstacles. Space launch from such terrain is unlikely to compromise any of the resource benefits of volcanoes (watershed, soil replenishment).
Opportunities for Economic Development
Labor day in Ecuador
Locating even a modest launch complex of any kind in alpine equatorial regions is likely to bring in jobs and tourists. Launch itself might improve a volcano's value as a "scenic resource" (providing more tourism income to locals): tourists coming to watch a launch would be witnessing the spectacle of an artifical "eruption" that poses none of the risks of natural ones.
Climbing Mt. Kenya
Short of hosting actual launch capability, the first steps of providing it might offer tourism opportunities. One is in developing scenic resources: a view from the top. Volcanoes are notorious among alpinists as very boring climbs. To most travelers a view of the mountain and the view from the top of it would be more to the point than the climb itself. As an interim step in developing launch infrastructure, a tram service might be provided, running through a tunnel bored to the peak, so that tourists could enjoy commanding views whenever the weather allowed.
Volcanoes might help provide local renewable energy. In advance of establishing a volcano's peak as a tourist destination, a much narrower "pilot tunnel", unfit for tourist passage, might be bored from crater to base (perhaps using large-bore oil-drilling equipment). This would allow hydroelectric power to be efficiently generated from snowmelt pools in craters. The tunnel might be steadily widened until it could host a tram. Having such a tunnel would make it easier to work on a new channel during tourism off-hours, one in which a projectile space launch tube might fit,
Inflatable satellite dish
Even before development of launch infrastructure of any scale, alpine equatorial communities might be given preference in hiring "telebot" operators to do jobs in prototype exovivaria and virtual exovivaria, jobs that developed-world members of Project Persephone would rather pay to have done than do themselves. The first order of business would probably be to provide these base communities with global telecommunications channels, and an ability to earn income from them. Simply having such communications, close to scenic mountains, would greatly enhance the tourism potential of these locations -- after all, we live a world where travelers increasingly prefer to stay Internet-connected, even in flight.
Building a classroom
A greater opening to the rest of the world, provided it brought enough benefits, would likely make communities more receptive to further development later on as launch areas, for as long as incomes, educations, access to medical care, and standard of living generally improved. To the extent that developing world income is repatriated by guest labor, communications links could help cheaply channel rudimentary language instruction and introduction to possible clients, in advance of taking up work in richer countries. The proximity to a high mountain peak might provide an excellent location for antennae for satellite broadband communications, as the preferred way to link up with communities that might not even have regular, reliable telephone service now. The needed satellite comm equipment is becoming ever more portable, making initial high-quality road access less of an issue than it might otherwise be, for communities in the more remote areas.
2 Maulia, Erwida (Feb 15, 2012). "Russia repeats offer to RI to become a 'space nation'". The Jakarta Post (Jakarta, Indonesia). Retrieved 2012-02-18. ⇑
- The Mountain Institute - "The Mountain Institute empowers communities in the world's great mountain systems through education, conservation and sustainable development"