Smallsat launch company breaks ground on satellite-flinging test facility


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Capitalism in space: SpinLaunch, a new smallsat launch company that proposed to put its customer’s satellites into orbit by “flinging” them upward, has broken ground on a facility where it will test this radical launch technology.

The company broke ground yesterday (May 7) at Spaceport America in New Mexico, marking the start of construction on a $7 million flight-test facility.

And this will be no ordinary launch pad. SpinLaunch is developing a kinetic-energy-based system that will fling small spacecraft skyward without firing up a rocket engine (though traditional chemical propulsion does come into play later in the flight). If all goes according to plan, SpinLaunch will eventually be able to loft satellites cheaply and rapidly — up to five times per day, at about $250,000 a pop, company representatives have said.

They have already raised $40 million in investment capital, and hope to do their first commercial launch in 2022.

While this company is far behind the leaders in the smallsat launch race, it very much seems to represent the second wave of competition. The first wave is generally using tried and true concepts of rocketry, albeit applied with modern technology and some innovation to lower the costs. The second wave will involve companies trying to beat that first wave with new and radical ideas that will lower the costs even more. SpinLaunch appears to be in that group.

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6 comments

  • mike shupp

    Where are the electromagnetic launchers dreamt of in our youth? Tie down your spacecraft on a big sled, ram it along a railway or through a batch of super-conducting metal hoops, bend that pathway UP along the side of a convenient mountain, and let it go when you’ve jacked the speed up to orbital velocity ….

    Ecuador is waiting! Mountains and a perfect location for zero degree inclination trajectories. There’s more to grow there than guerrillas and coffee and narcotics!

  • Gealon

    Mach 25… practically at sea level… from what I can only imagine is a tiny rocket being flung off of a rotating gantry… I am skeptical.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Very little seems to be publicly known about what these folks are going to try. Some of what I’ve read suggests the system – whatever it turns out to be – will not be designed to launch things all the way to orbit with whatever ground-based energy-imparting system is built but will rely on a rocket engine equivalent to a typical 2nd stage to complete the job. But the intent is apparently to launch the vehicles at an initial ground-level velocity between Mach 6 and 10. For a vehicle even the size and mass of a sounding rocket second stage, that’s a tall order. The projectiles will probably have to be fairly sizable as well as massive because they’ll need to withstand truly epic G-loads and still carry enough propellant to get the beefy vehicle the rest of the way to orbit. The trade space for the vehicle design is going to be seriously weird and not in a good way.

    One potentially “rational” approach I can see would be to use a large vertical coil gun that is fed by a bank of massive flywheels that convert all their energy to electricity in a fraction of a second.

    A variation on this theme that might be easier to engineer would be a vertical Heinlein-esque “booster gun” in which the bank of massive flywheels each have a smaller coil gun that accelerates a piston into a cylinder filled with an inexpensive noble gas like argon. These would be “ripple-fired” to provide initial boost-from-rest momentum to the rocket projectile/payload and to keep up or even increase the driving pressure as said projectile rises in the main gun tube toward its release into the atmosphere – probably through a burst disc over the muzzle.

    Of course SpinLaunch may have something entirely different than either of these spitballs of mine in mind.

    However they figure to do things, it’ll be a heckuva thing to watch – from a suitable distance and with adequate protection. Observers would be well-advised to watch only through some armored-glass port in a massive bunker. Mach 10 sonic booms at ground level might just liquify your giblets even fairly far away if encountered in the open. I wonder a bit about the fate of all that nice curtain glass in the Virgin Galactic terminal.

  • Col Beausabre

    “they’ll need to withstand truly epic G-loads”

    To give you an idea of the g-loads involved, a typical modern artillery shell (hollow filled with explosive) is in the order of 40,000 g’s. for a muzzle velocity of circa 2700 fps (M777 155mm Howitzer firing Charge 8 Super). Modern tank guns firing solid shot have velocities in the order of 5000 fps and up (M900 APFSDS-T from M68 105mm gun as mounted on US M60 tank, MV = 1505 m/s = 4940 fps and US M829 APFSDS-T “Silver Bullet” from M256 120mm as mounted on M1A1 tank, MV = 1679 m/s = 5510 fps). I have no idea what they translate into in terms of g force, but I don’t think “epic” covers it !

    As for “liquifying your giblets”

    The manual says “The overpressure from the 120mm cannon can kill a dismounted infantryman within a 90° arc extending from the muzzle of the gun tube out to 200 meters.”

    Which partially explains why I was a tanker at the other end of the gun

  • Calvin Dodge

    From the article: “Because the majority of the energy required to reach orbit is sourced from ground-based electricity, as opposed to complex onboard rocket propulsion, total launch cost is reduced by an order of magnitude over existing launch systems.”

    The majority? That would be at least 18,000 MPH/sqrt(2), wouldn’t it? Around 12,700 MPH. Yeah, that sounds total feasible anywhere the atmosphere is thick enough to breath.

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