Getting into space is difficult, one of the reasons is that it takes a lot of energy to get rid of the gravity of the earth. So far, we have found that the only way to do this reliably is to use rockets, but a startup called SpinLaunch has other ideas. The company hopes to use a huge vacuum chamber and a rotating hypersonic tether to put the satellite into orbit. SpinLaunch just completed its first power test launch by raising the aircraft into the atmosphere.
The key to SpinLaunch's future vision is the orbital accelerator, a large centrifuge that can accelerate small aircraft to thousands of miles per hour. The company achieves these incredible speeds by running centrifuges in a vacuum chamber to reduce friction. When the hypersonic tether reaches the proper speed, it will detach from the vehicle in less than a millisecond. This sends the payload up through the chimney-like tube on the top of the accelerator. If everything goes according to plan, the system can send approximately 440 pounds (200 kilograms) of material into space, and almost all of the energy used is electricity.
However, the problem is that the orbital accelerator does not yet exist. SpinLaunch has started from a smaller version, and it is still very large. At 165 feet (about 50 meters), the suborbital accelerator is higher than the Statue of Liberty, and it can work. SpinLaunch successfully projected the test vehicle up from the vacuum chamber into the air tens of thousands of feet. This is a good start!
By starting small, SpinLaunch was able to validate its aerodynamic model and then scale up. The first kinetic energy emission only used about 20% of the total power of the system. Ultimately, SpinLaunch plans to establish a complete space technology ecosystem for the orbital accelerator. Although the payload does not require the rocket to leave the atmosphere, a small rocket engine will still be installed in the aircraft's gas hull to help position it in orbit. However, the weight of the fuel is very small. In a traditional rocket launch, most of the initial mass is fuel. Orbital accelerators have the potential to be a very cheap way to put small satellites into orbit—even cheaper than reusable rockets like SpaceX Falcon 9.
A potential problem is that to send hundreds of kilograms into space, the hypersonic tether needs to move very fast. Therefore, the payload will be affected by extreme centrifugal force. SpinLaunch said it would be "easy" to optimize the payload for kinetic energy launch. However, there is not much room for error. If it happens at launch speed, even a small problem could tear the orbital accelerator. SpinLaunch is not the first company to explore this concept, but it is the first company to actually build it. Hope it will move forward and upward from now on.
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