SpinLaunch plans to use a giant centrifuge, instead of burning rocket fuel, to power a flight to space.
“5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 …” Time for liftoff?
It sounds like the start of a rocket launch, but it’s not. Late last month, a 10-foot projectile spun very fast around an enormous, 108-foot-wide centrifuge. It flew straight up into the sky through an attached flue, barreling 25,000 feet above the New Mexico desert.
This is the eighth test flight since last year for SpinLaunch, the California-based startup with its eyes set on launching a rocket later this year through a mammoth version of its unique kinetic launch system.
Shot like a bullet, this was the first test that used an onboard camera to convey just how fast the projectile flew away from the test site—1,000 miles per hour—and how high it got before falling back to Earth during the 82-second flight. The camera view of the April 22 test also shows how the projectile spun, thanks to its angled fins, which provide stability during flight. (The same principle applies to the etched grooves on the internal part of a gun barrel, so that a bullet shot through it can keep a stable trajectory by spinning.)
Unlike other launches, SpinLaunch uses simple physics on a grand scale in order to fling objects away from Earth. You may have experienced the physics of a centrifuge when you were a child and an adult spun you around really fast in a circle. You felt a powerful force that pushed you away from the adult, and your feet flew into the air, so the adult had to hold on tightly. If the two of you had let go, you would have been flung away. Essentially, you were experiencing a miniature version of SpinLaunch’s suborbital mass accelerator in this game.
Later this year, the company will shoot a rocket three times the size of the test model. It will use a centrifuge as large as a football field, which is also three times bigger than the one used in the model test. SpinLaunch expects the rocket to reach speeds of 5,000 miles per hour and pierce the upper atmosphere. At this point, the rocket will fire its own engines in order to attain low-Earth orbit. In the future, the rocket would be used to propel payloads like small satellites.
In June, SpinLaunch signed a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop its kinetic energy-based launch system; the goal is to provide a lower-cost option for the growing satellite industry. Eventually, the company hopes to launch not only satellites, but also scientific experiments, building materials, and other objects weighing up to 440 pounds. SpinLaunch has also planned a test for NASA later this year to develop, launch, and recover a payload.