A secretive startup has been awarded a launch contract for the U.S. military using a rather novel launch system – based on kinetic energy technology that would essentially shoot satellites directly into space using a hypersonic vehicle.
Last week on Wednesday, June 19, California-based company SpinLaunch announced they had secured a launch contract with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). They didn’t release any further details, other than noting it was a “responsive launch prototype contract… for kinetic energy-based launch services.”
The company was founded back in 2014 but only emerged into the public eye in 2018 after spending four years in stealth mode. The company raised $40 million in Series A funding in April last year from Airbus Ventures, Google Ventures, and Kleiner Perkins. They are touting launch costs of $250,000, and up to five launches per day. It’s unclear what the weight limit is per launch.
On its website the company says it is aiming to build “the world’s lowest cost space launch system”, taking small satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO). It says it is the only kinetic energy-based launch system that will be capable of sending satellites into orbit without the use of rockets.
Based on an image released by the company (above), it looks like they will spin some sort of vehicle in a circular chamber up to high speeds, before releasing it like a catapult and sending it to space. The company says it has used technology from mining and wind turbines to “construct an innovative mass acceleration system”, which can reach orbit without using large amounts of fuel like traditional rockets.
After reaching a high enough altitude, noted as above the atmosphere, SpinLaunch will use an onboard rocket to provide the final kick to reach orbit. Other details haven’t been released at the moment, although they are aiming for their first launch in 2022. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
“This will truly be a disruptive enabler for the emerging commercial space industry,” the company’s founder and CEO, Jonathan Yaney, noted in the statement last week. “There is a promising market surge in the demand for LEO constellations of inexpensive small satellites for disaster monitoring, weather, reconnaissance, communications, and other services.”
SpinLaunch recently relocated to a new headquarters in Long Beach, California in January 2019, and has also built a $7 million test facility at Spaceport America in New Mexico (where Virgin Galactic operates from). They are planning to conduct their first flight tests in early 2020.
There has been quite a lot of discussion about kinetic energy launch systems over the years, often called mass drivers or mass accelerators, but no company or organization has ever used such a system to reach orbit. In an interview with TechCrunch last year, however, Yaney said he believes his company can succeed.
“SpinLaunch employs a rotational acceleration method, harnessing angular momentum to gradually accelerate the vehicle to hypersonic speeds,” he said. “This approach employs a dramatically lower cost architecture with much lower power.”
The use of “hypersonic” suggests SpinLaunch are looking to reach speeds above Mach 5, which is five times the speed of sound or about 4,000 miles per hour. There are issues there with things like air resistance, but the aerodynamic shape of the vehicle designed by SpinLaunch has likely been developed with this in mind.
If the company can be successful it would certainly be impressive, providing an alternative to existing smallsat launchers like Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit. And if they’re true to their word, we could see some tests of their novel system as early as the start of next year.