The thing that has been common for every satellite put into orbit in the history of spaceflight is that they’ve all used rockets. However, the need for rockets is changing with a company called SpinLaunch celebrating the first successful test launch for its kinetic launch system. The launch system doesn’t use a rocket and is zero emissions.
It uses a massive accelerator larger than the Statue of Liberty powered by an electric drive to throw payloads into orbit. SpinLaunch says its creation could reduce fuel consumption by a factor of four while costing ten times less than similar launches using traditional rockets. Another massive benefit is that the system would be able to put multiple payloads into orbit each day.
The test flight did not put the payload into orbit. The current test device is a Suborbital Accelerator featuring an upright vacuum chamber shaped like a disc and a carbon fiber tether. Together, the vacuum chamber and the tether spin projectiles at speeds of up to 5000 mph. Once the payload is accelerated fully, the tether is released, throwing the projectile out of the launcher, into the atmosphere, and into orbit.
A larger accelerator will be required to place payloads into orbit, known as the L100 Orbital Mass Accelerator. It would operate similarly to the smaller suborbital accelerator but will be able to place satellites up to 440 pounds into orbit. Accelerating something to 5000 mph, which is many times the speed of sound, means that electronics able to survive 10,000g are required. However, testing has proven satellite systems are capable of surviving that type of acceleration.
SpinLaunch conducted its first test of the suborbital launch on October 22. The test was conducted at a location in Spaceport America in New Mexico. The prototype vehicle launched during the test flight did reach supersonic speeds and was later recovered to be reused. Additional flight tests will occur in 2022 utilizing different vehicles at different launch velocities. Currently, SpinLaunch plans to put the first customer satellites into orbit in late 2024.
With the push towards being green, an emissions-free space launch technology will prove popular. SpinLaunch says in the future, it will be able to launch entire constellations of satellites into what it describes as the most mission-critical layers of the atmosphere. The company also mentions in a future where large numbers of people are traveling into space, there will be a need to launch structures, equipment, and supplies.
That statement seemingly suggests SpinLaunch sees a future where it will be able to launch objects larger than 440 pounds satellites. Development of the launch system began in 2015. Two years after beginning the project, SpinLaunch’s accelerator set a record for the fastest rotational tip speeds. However, the most significant milestone reached in the project so far was the launch last month.
It’s unclear how much larger the orbital-class accelerator needs to be. The suborbital accelerator stands 50.4 meters tall, and undoubtedly the orbital-class accelerator would be significantly larger. To put the size in perspective, the Statue of Liberty stands 46 meters tall. SpinLaunch points out that its suborbital system also provides long-term value as a satellite qualification facility.