Medieval Space Flight? A Company Is Catapulting Rockets to Cut Costs

Saddle up.
Chris Young
SpinLaunch's Suborbital AcceleratorSpinLaunch

Why use unsustainable rocket propellants for small satellite launches when you could just catapult them into space?

It might sound like a mad proposition, but a California-based startup, SpinLaunch, is actually developing an alternative rocket launch technology that spins a vacuum-sealed centrifuge at several times the speed of sound before releasing the payload, launching it like a catapult up into orbit.

According to a report by CNBC, SpinLaunch conducted the first test flight using its prototype electric launch system last month, October 22, at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Alternative launch system will have 'the lowest cost in the industry'

Rocket launches are incredibly costly and are also bad for the environment, as one launch generates several hundred tons of CO2, uses thousands of gallons of water, and can also release harmful nitrous oxides into the atmosphere — though it's worth pointing out that the space industry's carbon footprint does pale in comparison to that of passenger airliners.

SpinLaunch not only aims to provide a vastly more sustainable launch system, but it has also set the goal of providing satellite launch services "at the lowest cost in the industry," SpinLaunch CEO Jonathan Yaney told CNBC.

Medieval Space Flight? A Company Is Catapulting Rockets to Cut Costs
A concept image of SpinLaunch's finalized launch system. Source: SpinLaunch

With its launch system, called the Suborbital Accelerator, SpinLaunch has developed a system that is not reliant on rocket fuel and instead utilizes electricity, kinetic energy, and a centrifugal mechanism that looks like a postmodern twist on a medieval contraption.

The machine is composed of a 1,000-ton steel vacuum chamber that maintains the low pressure required for a carbon fiber tether to spin at incredibly high speeds while minimizing aerothermal heating. Air is sucked out of the chamber prior to launch to allow for a low-friction environment, enabling the projectile to reach a speed of thousands of miles per hour before it is launched out of a skyward-facing tube.

An 'audacious and crazy' space project

SpinLaunch was founded in 2014 and has remained largely under the radar until recently. In his interview with CNBC, Yaney explained 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."

The company has raised $110 million to date and it has so far built a one-third scale version of its launch system which it used for the recent successful test flight. Even at a third of the scale, it's worth noting that it still reaches a height of 165 feet (50 meters), meaning that the final model would be roughly the same height as the Eiffel Tower.

Medieval Space Flight? A Company Is Catapulting Rockets to Cut Costs
SpinLaunch's Suborbital Accelerator prototype during construction. Source: SpinLaunch

For the system, SpinLaunch is developing incredibly high-precision release mechanisms as well as projectiles that reach speeds of thousands of miles per hour once they catapult into the air. The company says that its test flight in October was conducted at approximately 20 percent of its prototype system's full power. Though it hasn't released exact figures, it says the projectile, which stands in for a satellite payload, reached an altitude "in the tens of thousands of feet."

SpinLaunch aims to recover its systems after launch, and it eventually wants to add rocket engines that would only be utilized once the projectiles have already reached suborbital space. The private space enterprise says it will eventually be able to send about 440 lbs (200 kg) of payload to orbit at a fraction of the cost of other satellite launch services, such as the services run by SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and other space companies. Over the next eight months, SpinLaunch will conduct roughly 30 suborbital test flights from Spaceport America. Stay posted for more updates on this project that is so crazy it might just work.