SpinLaunch to disrupt space access

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We wrote this post back in 2019 and thought it was a good idea to update given SpinLaunch has begun testing their concept at Spaceport America. In May 2019 the potentially disruptive company, SpinLaunch broke ground on its new facility in New Mexico at Spaceport America. They aim to compete in the launch market by getting satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) through conducting five launches per day for as little as USD250,000 a time. This is potentially a huge disruptive advance in accessing space, if all goes well. The company started off very secretive and only in 2019 started releasing details of what it is planning to do, including the 2022 timeframe for beginning launch operations.

SpinLaunch press release graphic (Credit: SpinLaunch)

The company was formed in 2014 and in 2018 got some serious backing when Airbus Ventures and Kleiner Perkins put in USD40 million. The good news continued this year with the Pentagon taking notice of what SpinLaunch is up to and offering them a launch prototype contract which was arranged by the Defense Innovation Unit. This is a huge boost for the company who is planning to use a system for launching that spins the launch vehicle until it reaches a high enough velocity to be flung into the atmosphere. The plan is then to use a smaller rocket to boost the launch vehicle to the desired orbit, probably just after launch to overcome the huge deceleration that the vehicle would be subject to the moment atmospheric drag kicks in. Because the launch vehicle does not need to carry its initial propulsion and fuel, it starts off a lot lighter and smaller than traditional launch systems.

SpinLaunch plan to use existing technology and leverage the the engineering work of the oil, mining and wind turbine industries. These industries have a lot of experience in building large items that undergo a huge amount of stress (think of the speed and forces on the tips of the blades of the huge wind turbines).

The colossal Vestas V164 wind turbine, this type of technology will help SpinLaunch achieve their goals (Credit: Garvard University)

To get into LEO spacecraft have to be going nearly 8 kilometres per second and to get to this hypersonic velocity they have to accelerate tremendously quickly, hence the big rocket engines of traditional launch systems. SpinLaunch plans to do the acceleration in a centrifuge with the launch vehicle at the end of a long spinning arm. It’ll be interesting to see the dimensions of the apparatus they intend to use and understand what velocity the launch vehicle will be doing when it separates from the centrifuge. The forces involved would be quite huge as it accelerates to hypersonic speeds. The engineering challenges are significant but not impossible.

Though the concept is fascinating the really interesting aspect is the disruption this would cause the launch market if it works. If it’s possible to send multiple items into space in 200kg chunks, for example, at USD250,00 a pop, then the launch cost for 40 tons is USD50 million (a Falcon Heavy can do it for USD90 million) which gives the option of assembling larger items in orbit, of course the ability and infrastructure to assemble items in space would have to exist. The economics of this are impressive but not as disruptive as the smaller payload market. For example the Electron from Rocket Lab can launch a 200kg payload for about USD6 million so this is where SpinLaunch can become very disruptive. There are a lot of companies planning to get into the same space that Rocket Lab is operating so it’ll be interesting to see if SpinLaunch will meet the 2022 timeframe and disrupt all of them.

SpinLaunch suborbital accelerator (photo: SpinLaunch)

The test this year was done with their suborbital accelerator which is a one third scale of the proper space launch version. The CEO of SpinLaunch was quoted in CNBC article as saying the test launched a projectile tens of thousands of feet into the atmosphere. It’s great to see the concept is still on track and seems to be working so far. It might not be the best launch option for humans but certainly seems to be an innovative way of getting objects into space.

Role on 2022 and we’ll see if the launch market is in a spin!