SpaceX is building a hyperloop, Elon Musk's fantastical, futuristic transport tube capable of moving people and freight at speeds of 760 miles per hour.
The company is building a one- to three-mile-long hyperloop test track outside its Hawthorne, California headquarters with plans to test the technology within a year, according to documents obtained by Motherboard (embedded below). It's the first time that Musk, who conceived of the hyperloop, has been involved with any concrete plans to actually build it.
"SpaceX will be constructing a sub-scale test track (inner diameter between 4 and 5 feet; length approximately 1 mile) adjacent to its Hawthorne, California headquarters)," an official SpaceX document, called "SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition," said. "In order to accelerate the development of a functional prototype and to encourage student innovation, SpaceX is moving forward with a competition to design and build a half-scale Hyperloop pod."
"In addition to hosting the competition, SpaceX will likely build a pod for demonstration purposes only," the document said.
Musk offhandedly mentioned that he was working on a "fifth mode of transportation" in the summer of 2012, but said he didn't have the time necessary to work on it, with SpaceX, Tesla Motors, and SolarCity taking up the bulk of his time. But the public reaction to the hyperloop was so positive that, in August 2013, he and some SpaceX engineers drew up a highly detailed white paper describing a hyperloop that would shuttle passengers and cargo between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 35 minutes.
"We are interested in helping to accelerate development of a functional hyperloop prototype"
After Musk released the white paper, he made no indication that SpaceX or any other of his companies was actually working on the fantastical hyperloop. Instead, the paper, plans, and design were open sourced so that any company or engineer could work on the design.
Two companies, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Hyperloop Technologies, have started work on commercial hyperloops; Hyperloop Transportation Technologies announced last month that it is planning to build a five-mile test track in California. Neither Musk nor SpaceX has anything to do with those companies, and the SpaceX test track will be the first official project he's been involved with.
The hyperloop would consist of a steel, partially pressurized tube and various "pods" or "capsules" that can carry people, freight, and potentially cars.
“Just as aircraft climb to high altitudes to travel through less dense air, Hyperloop encloses the capsules in a reduced pressure tube,” Musk wrote in the white paper. “The pressure of air in the Hyperloop is about ⅙ the pressure of the atmosphere on Mars … a hard vacuum is avoided as vacuums are expensive and difficult to maintain compared with low pressure solutions.”
Motors on the pods themselves would create a cushion of air that would allow the pods to float within the tube, and they would be pushed along the tube by linear induction motors positioned along the inside of the tubes. These tubes would be powered by solar panels mounted on their outer surface.
Musk has said that for cities less than 900 miles apart, the hyperloop would be faster and cheaper than air travel and better than existing trains in just about every way. It would travel at just under the speed of sound, for passenger comfort and safety.
According to the company, SpaceX has no plans to actually build a commercial hyperloop like the one proposed in the white paper. Instead, the company is trying to spur innovation and attention to the design, and it wants to prove that the concept actually works. SpaceX told me that it's happy two companies are actually trying to design and build commercial hyperloops, and that the company does not want to compete with them. SpaceX's primary focus is still on spaceflight and on eventually sending humans to Mars.
"We are excited that a handful of private companies have chosen to pursue this effort," the company said. "While we are not developing a commercial hyperloop ourselves, we are interested in helping to accelerate development of a functional hyperloop prototype."
In the contest, teams of university students will be tasked with designing passenger pods and presenting them at a meet up with SpaceX officials at Texas A&M University in January, 2016. The best designs will actually be built at half scale and will be tested in June of 2016 at the SpaceX hyperloop test track. These pods will apparently be large enough to put a human inside, but will be tested without passengers.
In the white paper, Musk showed what a pod might look like:
SpaceX says it will release more information about the contest, such as technical details, in August. For now, you can check out the document announcing the contest below.