Electric-powered space launch company Spinlaunch recently sent a camera high into the atmosphere using its centrifugal launch platform, and shared video of the wild ride.
If you’ve never heard of Spinlaunch, we’ve got a good article about when it first set up shop at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Since then, many details have come to light about the system.
On the camera launch video, you probably noticed that there was a loud CRACK sound at launch, which might mislead some readers into thinking that Spinlaunch used a big gun of some kind to launch the rocket. This actually isn’t how it works at all, and that sound is caused by the launch vehicle going through the air faster than the speed of sound, not unlike the tip of Indiana Jones’ whip.
In short, Spinlaunch uses a giant centrifuge that uses electric power to spin a small rocket to over 5,000 miles per hour. This is possible because the centrifuge is contained in a vacuum chamber, and because there’s no air inside the chamber, there’s no air resistance or heating of the rocket or the tether (the arm that holds the rocket) as it picks up speed. Precision computer controls time the release of the rocket from the arm and send the rocket away like the sling, an ancient weapon that throws rocks (not to be confused with a slingshot). Upon release, the rocket breaks through a thin plastic membrane (which seals the vacuum chamber), and then flies off toward space.
The company’s first suborbital system (used in the videos above) is designed to test the technology, but Spinlaunch does plan on doing a larger orbital launcher in the future. Neither system can put loads into space on its own, but by propelling the rocket to over 6 times the speed of sound at launch, the need for a big rocket that burns vast quantities of fuel is eliminated. Instead, a Spinlaunch rocket can be quite small and still take its payload to space. This will lower both the monetary cost and the environmental costs of launching small spacecraft (like satellites) into space.
Here’s a great animation of what the entire orbital process will look like:
There are some important limitations to this system, as you can probably deduce from the videos above. The forces on the rocket are severe, and would probably kill any living thing with more than a few cells that tries to ride on the rocket. So, there’s basically no chance of scaling this system up to launch people into space. Even if we could survive the process, the video makes it clear that the system would quickly take the title of “vomit comet” away from NASA’s old zero gravity simulator plane.
So Spinlaunch really isn’t a competitor for SpaceX, which will be able to take large loads (including us) safely into space and (hopefully) safely back home. But being able to launch small satellites at lower costs and greatly reduced environmental impact makes it an important way to electrify and clean up access to space.
Featured image: a screenshot from the video of Spinlaunch’s first launch.