Given the number of rocket videos exploding on the Internet, it is not surprising that space travel is difficult. It takes a lot of energy to get rid of the earth’s gravity and that means we have to keep our precious cargo stuck in a tube full of explosives. A company called SpinLunch launched waves a few months ago with successful testing of its centrifuge-based dynamic launch system, which requires much less power than conventional rockets. Now, NASA is interested and has announced an upcoming test flight using SpinLaunch technology.
SpinLunch conducted its first major test last October, lifting a test vehicle thousands of feet into the air. The system consists of a centrifuge on the ground like a giant wheel. Inside, the system is placed in a vacuum to reduce friction, allowing the centrifuge to reach incredibly high speeds. In less than a millisecond, the arm releases the car, which emerges from a chimney-like structure that rises above the rest of the equipment.
NASA seems to have liked what it saw. It has contracted with SpinLunch to develop, integrate and fly demo payloads on the company’s suborbital accelerator. It’s part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which explores promising technologies for the future of space exploration. The company expects the mission to take off by the end of the year and develop systems to ensure one-piece payload recovery. SpinLunch sees this as a major milestone for the company as it pivots commercial offerings over the development of technology.
SpinLunch says its launch technology takes 70 percent less fuel and ground infrastructure to launch a payload, as it only needs a small propulsive second stage to reach orbit after reaching the edge of space. There is an important catch: technology has not yet shown that it can reach orbit. The current version of SpinLaunch’s technology is called the A-33 Suborbital Mass Accelerator and is a one-third-scale version of the machine it seeks to build. This version will reach 5,000 miles per hour (8,000 km) inside the chamber, which means there will be no crude launches unless you hate having bones.
The larger centrifuge is still purely theoretical. Yes, you can build a big A-33, but the speed required to reach orbit is extremely high. When the payload leaves the tube, it will move at full sea-level pressure from any friction. A rocket, by comparison, is constantly accelerating, only reaching the escape speed when it is at a high altitude where the air pressure is low. It will take time and effort to solve such problems. NASA’s desire to finance the exploration of the dynamic launch spinlunch is a good start.