A Pentagon sponsored launch services company has completed the first successful test of their kinetic launch system. Designed to use accumulated speed while still on the ground, this breakthrough launch system could soon become the fastest and cheapest way to put objects into space.
BACKGROUND: TRADITIONAL ROCKETS
To send vehicles, satellites and even humans into space, organizations like the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) currently rely exclusively on enormous chemical rockets. Such systems are becoming increasingly reusable, but are also incredibly inefficient since the vast majority of the launch weight is the raw fuel needed to reach space.
This inefficiency, known as the rocket equation, has driven companies like Long Beach, California based SpinLaunch to search for novel ways to get to break Earth’s gravitational pull while using much smaller rockets.
ANALYSIS: KINETIC LAUNCH BECOMING POSSIBLE
That search led to the concept of a kinetic launch, where a vehicle equipped with a much smaller rocket would gain the majority of its launch momentum on Earth before being released. Think of the world’s fastest Ferris wheel, only it is enclosed in a vacuum-sealed centrifuge and spun at thousands of miles per hour. Once the satellite or other capsule has gained enough speed by zipping around inside the centrifuge, it is disconnected from the wheel and allowed to “rocket” toward space.
SPinLauch actually conducted the first test of this concept last month at Spaceport America in New Mexico, spinning up a dummy payload and hurling it successfully toward the sky. The test was not designed to actually reach space (that milestone is a ways away, and will still require a rocket as part of the payload) but solely to prove the working concept and the architecture of the system involved.
In an interview with CNBC, SpinLaunch CEO Jonathan Yaney said that the first test flight was a success, reaching “tens of thousands of feet” in altitude.
“It’s a radically different way to accelerate projectiles and launch vehicles to hypersonic speeds using a ground-based system,” said Yaney. “This is about building a company and a space launch system that is going to enter into the commercial markets with a very high cadence and launch at the lowest cost in the industry.”
OUTLOOK: BRINGING KINETIC LAUNCH TO VIABILITY
SpinLaunch has scheduled about 30 more suborbital test flights over the next eight months, which the company expects to use to prove the viability of their current models. This schedule is designed to ultimately lead to the construction of a full scale launch system.
“We can essentially validate our aerodynamic models for what our orbital launch vehicles are going to be like and it allows us to try out new technologies when it comes to release mechanisms,” said Yaney of the scheduled tests.
SpinLaunch has remained tight-lipped about any customers that may have already signed up for their services, but back in 2019 the company signed a contract with the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit to conduct its first experimental launches.
“I find that the more audacious and crazy the project is, the better off you are just working on it – rather than being out there talking about it,” said Yaney. “We had to prove to ourselves that we could actually pull this off.”
Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter:@plain_fiction