According to its inventors, rockets accelerated to several times the speed of sound in a vacuum cylinder can reduce the cost of spaceflight to a fraction of the cost. In recent years, there have been countless ideas on how to make rocket launches more economical, from reusable booster rockets to giant planes carrying space assets to the stratosphere, to futuristic space elevators. SpinLaunch has chosen a different solution, and it looks like their calculations will work.
According to an article on CNBC, the California startup conducted the first test of their accelerator prototype on 22 October at Spaceport America in New Mexico, which also serves as the base for Virgin Galactic, among others. Although the prototype is a third of the size of the final version, the tower through which the test vehicle exits still rises 50 metres above the New Mexico desert, higher than the Statue of Liberty, for example. The concept is to accelerate the rockets to several times the speed of sound in an airtight, giant centrifuge, using a lever to enable them to climb to an altitude of about 61 kilometres, and only here will they need to engage their engines to reach the escape velocity needed to reach orbit.
The company’s CEO, Jonathan Yaney, told CNBC that the solution has a number of advantages, as it would allow them to launch up to a dozen missiles in a day, while the launch costs would be a fraction of the current ones. SpinLaunch’s rocket would be capable of launching roughly 200 kilograms of cargo into orbit, i.e. it would be primarily capable of launching small space vehicles and satellites.
In the first test on 22 October, the accelerator was only operated at 20% of its full capacity, but it reportedly launched the three-metre-long test vehicle inside it several kilometres into the sky. The prototype is not yet on target to reach orbit, but will only be used for suborbital flights, and SpinLaunch engineers plan to achieve this with a further thirty launches over the next 6-8 months.
Founded in 2014, SpinLaunch has already attracted the attention of countless investors: the startup has raised around $110 million in capital, with backers including Google, Airbus and McKinley. In terms of marketing, Yaney’s approach is very different to Elon Musk’s, which explains why the company has been relatively little talked about. “I think the bolder and crazier the project, the better it is to just work on it – rather than talk about it,” Yaney explained to the business paper, saying they wanted to prove to themselves first that they could make the idea work.
While they are perfecting the release mechanism with the prototype and gaining a lot of information on how to aerodynamically design their rockets, SpinLaunch is also working on finalising the design of the final version, three times the size. According to Yaney, this facility will no longer be located at Spaceport America, but at an undecided location close to the coast, making it much easier and cheaper to access.
The parity principle, which is key to SpinLaunch, has been used in spaceflight for quite some time, albeit in a very different context: NASA and other space agencies use the gravitational pull of celestial bodies to accelerate orbiting spacecraft, saving significant amounts of fuel for deep space expeditions.