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Imaginary scenario: The US, Russia, China, Europe, India, and all the private space companies in between combine resources for a sustained space exploration program beyond Earth. They can choose any location on Earth for their new program's launch site.

Question: Energy-wise, what is the most optimal location on Earth for launching rockets?

Would a launch pad on Mt. Chimborazo ( 1° 28′ 9″ S, 78° 49′ 3″ W), be the most efficient launch pad on Earth in terms of delta-V? Or does distance from the center of the Earth not contribute much to the energy required to launch a payload into space?

Note: I realize building a launch pad on a mountain and sending rockets up to the mountain isn't very efficient itself, but I'm just curious.

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  • $\begingroup$ Reopening as per reopen votes (since aged away) and comments (since deleted as obsolete) that this question is more than just about altitude and atmospheric drag discussed in Effect of atmospheric drag on rocket launches and benefits of high altitude launch sites. It's closely related, but this one isn't a duplicate of the one suggested. I would suggest an edit of the question to clarify these points to avoid it being closed again in the future. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – TildalWave Apr 3 '15 at 2:06
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The equator enjoys an advantage as it's moving about .47 km/second. Other points on earth's surface are moving this speed * cos(latitude). So for example Kennedy Space Center at 28º degrees latitude moves .47 km/s * cos(28º) which is .42 km/s. So the equatorial French Guiana Space Centre enjoys a .05 km/s advantage over KSC.

As for mountain tops like Chimborazo:

6.4 kilometers is about 1/1000 of earth's radius. So if we choose earth radius as our unit of length, it's 1 vs 1.001.

Gravity acceleration is $GM/r^2$. $1/1.001^2 = .998$. So gravity advantage is about .2%.

So called centrifugal force is $\omega^2r$. $\omega^2*1.001$ gives a .1% advantage over $\omega^2*1$.

These are negligible advantages for a huge price tag.

A little more interesting is the rarefied mountain top atmosphere -- about half that of sea level. Still doesn't justify the expense of building a launch pad atop a high mountain. You need to get up to around 100 km before the air's thin enough to do the major burn to achieve orbital velocity.

It is also good to have a launch pad on an eastern seaboard so the booster stage doesn't fall on a populated area. Unfortuneately there are people living downrange from Chimborazo.

Somalia is on the equator and has an eastern seaboard. I've often thought this would be an excellent location for a space center. But I believe political instability is the show stopper in this case.

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  • $\begingroup$ "A little more interesting is the rarefied mountain top atmosphere.." Don't forget that engines are tuned (typically) for a particular pressure. I doubt tuning them to the more rarefied conditions on top of a mountain would make any more difference to the minimal gains you quoted, but it is worth noting. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Thompson Mar 19 '15 at 5:13
  • $\begingroup$ @AndrewThompson but you need to overcome less drag because you are already above half the atmosphere $\endgroup$ – kim holder Mar 19 '15 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ @AndrewThompson The Merlin exhaust velocity is 3 km/s in a vacuum and 2.73 km/s at sea level. I believe the exhaust velocity would be somewhere between those numbers for half an atmosphere. $\endgroup$ – HopDavid Mar 19 '15 at 23:31
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    $\begingroup$ @brillig the ship still needs to climb about 90 kilometers to do the main burn. Most of the ascent loss is gravity loss during the ascent, not from atmospheric drag. $\endgroup$ – HopDavid Mar 19 '15 at 23:32
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh I'm no expert but I think slow ascent is mostly due to thrust to weight ratio. We could boost T/W by adding more rocket engines but that would consume more of the very slim dry mass fraction available. $\endgroup$ – HopDavid Nov 7 '16 at 1:00

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