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MIT students win first round of SpaceX Hyperloop contest

Design tops more than 100 entries at an international high-speed transportation competition inspired by Elon Musk and sponsored by SpaceX.
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MIT Hyperloop Team: Doug Hart, Shawn Zhang, Colm O’Rourke, Greg Izatt, Greg Monahan , Nargis Sakhbova, Philippe Kirschen, Georgiana Vancea, Chris Merian, Peter Chamberlain, Sabrina Ball, Charlie Wheeler, Derek Paxson, Chuan Zhang, John Mayo, Rachel Dias Carlson, Lakshya Jain, Max Opgenoord. Additional team members not pictured: Yiou He, Philip Caplan, Olaide Olambiwonnu, Nick Baladis, Aleksandr ...
Caption:
MIT Hyperloop Team: Doug Hart, Shawn Zhang, Colm O’Rourke, Greg Izatt, Greg Monahan , Nargis Sakhbova, Philippe Kirschen, Georgiana Vancea, Chris Merian, Peter Chamberlain, Sabrina Ball, Charlie Wheeler, Derek Paxson, Chuan Zhang, John Mayo, Rachel Dias Carlson, Lakshya Jain, Max Opgenoord. Additional team members not pictured: Yiou He, Philip Caplan, Olaide Olambiwonnu, Nick Baladis, Aleksandr Rakitin, and Josh Chen.
Credits:
Photo courtesy of Nargis Sakhibova.
MIT's Hyperloop pod design
Caption:
MIT's Hyperloop pod design
Credits:
Image courtesy of MIT Hyperloop Team.
A rendering of MIT's Hyperloop pod design
Caption:
A rendering of MIT's Hyperloop pod design
Credits:
Image courtesy of MIT Hyperloop Team.

A team from MIT took top honors Saturday at a competition at Texas A&M University to design the Hyperloop, a high-speed transportation concept dreamed up by Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

Beating out a field of more than 100 other teams from around the world, the group of MIT graduate students won the best overall design award for a vehicle, or pod, that will ride inside the Hyperloop, a system of tubes connecting major cities — or what Musk calls “a fifth mode of transportation.” They will now move on to build a small-scale prototype of their design and test it this summer on a track being built next to the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

“MIT has been involved in so many technological breakthroughs in the past century,” says team captain Philippe Kirschen, a master’s student in aeronautics and astronautics. “It just makes sense we would help advance what might be the future of transportation.”

In 2013, Musk declared war on conventional inter-city travel. Last summer, he threw down the gauntlet, announcing a year-long competition to design vehicles for his Hyperloop scheme, a transit system ideally suited for major city pairs separated by 900 miles or less (think San Francisco and Los Angeles). In Hyperloop, people and freight are propelled in pods through tubes maintained at a near-vacuum. In the absence of air or surface friction, the pods travel at close to the speed of sound (around 750 miles per hour), using low-energy propulsion systems.

Since the fall, Kirschen and approximately two dozen fellow graduate students from a variety of engineering disciplines have been racing to create a design and sub-scale, prototype pod for the competition. Pods must accommodate a mechanical pusher that will serve as a propulsion system, and may levitate inside a near-vacuum tube that encloses the track. The capsules must also be equipped with sensors that can broadcast real-time telemetry data during the mile-long run.

With strengths in aeronautics, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering and computer science, the MIT Hyperloop Team focused on speed, braking, stability, and levitation. For the latter problem, they developed a model for electrodynamic suspension that relies on powerful magnets placed over a conducting plate, which in this case is the aluminum track SpaceX is building. The magnets generate lift. “The beauty of the system we designed,” says Kirschen, “is that it’s completely passive, an elegant property that will make our pod very scalable.”

This innovation, a departure from Musk’s original notion of pods levitating on a cushion of air, required a major research thrust. “None of us knew anything about magnets, and there has definitely been a steep learning curve for us,” Kirschen says. 

The team is gathering support from all over MIT. Douglas P. Hart of Mechanical Engineering is facilitating team members' work on the project for credit as part of his Engineering Systems Development course. The Edgerton Center has provided work and machining space, administrative support, and advising. During MIT's Independent Activities Period in January, the team finalized its pod design for the competition at Texas A&M. Their final capsule came in roughly 2.5 meters long, about one meter wide; it weighs 250 kilograms, and has the aerodynamic feel, says Kirschen, of a bobsled.

With the first stage of the competition behind them, the action now shifts to fabrication on a larger scale. The team will move from simulations to aluminum and carbon fiber, trying out braking systems, and, with great caution, testing dangerously strong magnets. Final assembly must be complete by mid-May. “Ideally, it will reach a speed in excess of 100 meters per second,” Kirschen says. There will be no passengers on board for the 20-second inaugural run.

Press Mentions

Popular Science

Popular Science reporter Christine Jun writes that the MIT team has unveiled the pod they developed to compete in the SpaceX Hyperloop competition. Jun explains that the MIT team’s pod is “8 feet long, weighs 500 pounds, and is expected to reach speeds up to 230 miles per hour with an acceleration of 2.4 Gs.”

Scientific American

Writing for Scientific American, Larry Greenemeier explores the pod the MIT Hyperloop team developed to compete in the upcoming SpaceX Hyperloop competition. “One of the most interesting parts of the Hyperloop is the attempt to go significantly faster than any other type of land travel,” says MIT team member and graduate student Greg Monahan. 

BBC News

In this video, Dave Lee reports for the BBC News from the MIT Hyperloop team’s unveiling event, during which the team revealed the prototype pod they designed for the SpaceX Hyperloop competition. Lee explains that the MIT team developed a “droplet-shaped pod [that] uses magnets to lift itself off the aluminum track, reducing friction.”

PBS NewsHour

PBS NewsHour correspondent Miles O’Brien visits MIT to see the Hyperloop team in action as they work on building a prototype pod that would travel on a high-speed transportation system. O’Brien explains that the MIT team is “testing arrays of common magnets that would levitate the pod over an aluminum track.”

National Geographic

Wendy Koch of National Geographic spoke with members of the MIT Hyperloop team about their work transforming their design for a levitating pod that could transport people at hundreds of miles an hour into an operational prototype. “It’s a great opportunity to learn and possibly to change the future of transportation,” says project manager and graduate student John Mayo. 

Wired

Wired reporter Alex Davies speaks with graduate student Phillipe Kirschen, team captain of the MIT Hyperloop team, about the team’s strategy. Kirschen explains that the team is focused on developing a “pod that is gonna go really fast, that is gonna levitate, that can have good attitude control, and that can brake well.”

Radio Boston (WBUR)

Graduate student Chris Merian, chief engineer for MIT's Hyperloop team, speaks with Radio Boston’s Meghna Chakrabarti about the team’s success in the Hyperloop contest. Merian says the team saw the competition as a, “really cool engineering challenge that we are really passionate about, and seeing our hundreds of hours of work rewarded like that was really, really nice.” 

Associated Press

A team of MIT students won the first round of the SpaceX Hyperloop competition for their design of a pod that could transport passengers on a conceptual high-speed transportation system.  MIT and other top teams will build and test their designs at the Hyperloop Test Track in California, reports the Associated Press.

Popular Science

Popular Science’s Priscilla Mosqueda writes about the team of MIT students that won the first round of the SpaceX competition.  “We had a clear message: our pod was about making something safe, stable and feasible,” explains team captain and graduate student Philippe Kirschen.

Boston Herald

Boston Herald reporter Laurel Sweet writes that a team of MIT students has won the first round of the SpaceX Hyperloop contest. “Powered by renewable energy, Hyperloop aims to rocket floating passenger pods through elevated tubes at nearly the speed of sound,” writes Sweet. 

Boston Globe

A team of MIT students took first place in the first round of the SpaceX Hyperloop competition, reports Steve Annear for The Boston Globe.  Team members told Annear that, “It’s great to see our hard work recognized, and we are excited to have the opportunity to continue to push this technology one step closer to reality.” 

Fortune- CNN

MIT students captured the top spot in the first round of the SpaceX Hyperloop competition for their design for passenger pods that could travel on a high-speed transportation system, reports David Morris for Fortune

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