This startup flung a NASA payload into the sky this year using a space catapult

At number 10 on IE's 22 best innovations of 2022, we look at SpinLaunch’s novel launch method that could massively reduce launch costs.
Chris Young
SpinLaunch
SpinLaunch

Ibrahim Can/Interesting Engineering

A lot of the talk regarding the best in space innovations today is reserved for SpaceX’s fully reusable Starship rocket.

It's worth noting, however, that this doesn't mean there aren't companies looking to lead the next revolution in orbital payload launches.

In October, we reported that US startup SpinLaunch had launched a NASA payload into the sky using its catapult-like Suborbital Accelerator, a smaller prototype version of the Orbital Accelerator it aims to use to eventually fire satellites into space.

That NASA payload underwent forces of up to 10,000 g, traveled at roughly 5,000 mph (8,000 km/h), and reached an altitude of about 30,000 ft (9,150 m). And it survived the trip.

This is number 14 in Interesting Engineering's series, showcasing the best innovations of 2022. Check back to discover more about groundbreaking AI, unique solar panels, new 3D printing methods, and much more.

A space catapult system could vastly reduce launch costs

In a press statement at the time, SpinLaunch said its NASA payload test demonstrated that the satellite components used were "inherently compatible with the company’s launch environment."

The company's 33-meter-diameter Suborbital Mass Accelerator is a prototype for its eventual full-size 100-meter Orbital Launch system, which it hopes to have ready for operational launches by 2026. 

This startup flung a NASA payload into the sky this year using a space catapult
SpinLaunch's Suborbital Accelerator launching the NASA payload.

Both of these are circular catapult-like accelerators. They are powered by an electric drive that uses a mechanical arm to sling payloads around in circles inside the vacuum-sealed accelerator. When the payload reaches the required velocity — close to five times the speed of sound at 5,000 mph — it is jettisoned into the sky through a launch tube.

Why sling a payload into the sky? Why not just use a rocket?

The main benefit of SpinLaunch’s system is that it will be much cheaper than orbital rocket launches, which are themselves much cheaper than they were a few short years ago.

Not only that, SpinLaunch’s system could eliminate up to 70 percent of the fuel and infrastructure requirements of a traditional rocket launch. The company will only use a small rocket engine for the final orbital insertion, while the rest of the work will be carried out by the electric drive in its accelerator.

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This could prove vital given the environmental impact of rockets — a June study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, detailed how rockets release tons of black carbon molecules into the stratosphere. If it succeeds in its mission, SpinLaunch will disrupt the small satellite launch industry, making it more environmentally friendly while also dramatically driving down launch costs.

This is number 10 in Interesting Engineering's series, showcasing the best innovations of 2022. Check back to discover more about groundbreaking AI, unique solar panels, new 3D printing methods, and much more.