In the 21st century, there’s a new space race, primarily between Tesla (SpaceX) and Amazon (Blue Origin). Both are concentrating on traditional methods of launching satellites into space—namely, big rockets. However, a small space startup called SpinLaunch is developing a cheaper and environmentally cleaner way of launching satellites.
SpinLaunch is using a gigantic centrifuge to shoot stuff into space. By “stuff,” we mean things that can withstand the G-force created by being spun at 5,000 miles per hour (over 10,000 Gs), which is a category of stuff that does not yet include satellites. However, it did launch a missile-like projectile tens of thousands of feet into the air last month, using only 20 percent of the accelerator’s power.
The design is relatively simple. A carbon fiber tether holds the projectile inside a span vacuum chamber as it spins up to speed. Once the centrifuge has reached the desired velocity, the launch vehicle is released out a tube taller than the Statue of Liberty (50.4 meters). It is not unlike launching your friends off the merry-go-round when you were a kid. A more mature and controlled application of the principle would be the hammer throw event in the Olympics.
New Atlas notes that the accelerator is electric and could cut the amount of fuel needed to launch satellites. SpinLaunch estimates that its centrifuge uses four times less fuel than traditional rockets and has zero emissions. It is also 10 times cheaper per launch because it can send up multiple payloads in a day.
The company has two versions of the accelerator. The suborbital (masthead), which it successfully tested on October 22, stands upright in the middle of a New Mexico desert so that test vehicles do not stray too far and do not crush anything when they come down. The suborbital launcher is for testing purposes only.
The orbital launcher is what the company is aiming at but has not built the facility yet (below). It says it is looking to construct it in an undisclosed coastal region. SpinLaunch is currently seeking approval from the FAA. Once things are in order, the startup will build the accelerator on the side of a hill to get the proper angle for orbital flight. It will be larger than the test unit to obtain higher velocity but will operate under the same principle.
Right now, current satellites would not survive a spin-launch. However, the company says that advances in electronics have produced capacitors, chips, and resistors that can withstand the tremendous G-forces generated by the centrifuge. Testing of satellite components has proven vehicles could be ruggedized to withstand a launch.
With last month’s test flight under its belt, SpinLaunch is planning several more trials throughout 2022. The startup wants to study the performance of several vehicle types at various velocities and hopes to start commercial flights in late 2024.
It’s worth noting that this method is not viable for launching manned vessels into space. The human body can only withstand a maximum of 9 Gs and only for a few seconds. Astronauts would be dead long before the centrifuge even reached its maximum speed.