Nov 13, 2021 I Paul Seaburn

Watch Out, Bezos and Musk — This Startup Will Launch Satellites With a Giant Catapult

Remember Mad Mike Hughes – the steam-powered rocket pioneer who made several successful steamy trips into really low space before meeting his demise in 2020 doing what he loved? It was easy to like Mad Mike but hard to imagine NASA or any public or private space agency launching rockets with steam. Well, Mad Mike and Monty Python would be excited about this next story – a startup company in Long Beach, California, has successfully tested a catapult capable of launching spacecraft into orbit. Really!

“It’s a radically different way to accelerate projectiles and launch vehicles to hypersonic speeds using a ground-based system. This is about building a company and a space launch system that is going to enter into the commercial markets with a very high cadence and launch at the lowest cost in the industry.”

You can bet that “lowest cost in the industry” caught the attention of a few space agencies as SpinLaunch CEO Jonathan Yaney announced on CNBC that the company had successfully tested a one-third scale prototype launch system and flung a rocket far into the air using nothing but kinetic energy. No, this wasn’t a medieval catapult or a Wile E. Coyote Acme Giant Slingshot but a 165-foot-tall vacuum-sealed centrifuge spinning a projectile at 2 or 3 times the speed of sound before flinging it straight up into low space or “tens of thousands of feet.” (Videos, illustrations and specs here.) That’s not exactly Bezos territory or even Richard Branson height but we’re talking a giant catapult here.

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Bigger than this one

“This engineering process has been used to develop high-g reaction wheels for 20kg and 200kg-class satellites, deployable solar arrays and electric propulsion modules. Even unmodified smartphones, action cameras, and telescope lenses have survived without damage. In comparison to mechanical systems, electronics are surprisingly simple to ruggedize for kinetic launch. Because of the relatively low mass of resistors, capacitors, and electronic chips, many existing designs can be flown without any substantial modifications.”

Yaney and his SpinLaunch engineers know what you’re thinking -- won’t all of that high g-force spinning crush satellites and payloads or at least make them do the equivalent of electronic vomiting? SpinLaunch is developing special satellites for the catapult and has ruggedized conventional gear to survive the launch, although Yaney tells CNBC that cellphone have survived tests. Of course, the current testing is at 20-percent capacity and the rocket launched was only 10 feet in length, but SpinLaunch is a dream machine like Mad Mike and his steam rocket – the next one will be even better.

“We can essentially validate our aerodynamic models for what our orbital launch vehicles are going to be like and it allows us to try out new technologies when it comes to release mechanisms.”

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Future rocket man?

OK, so they successfully completed one test of a scaled-down prototype of a centrifugal-force catapult that launched a small rocket tens of thousands of feet up like a giant pitching machine in a vertical batting cage. Who on Earth would be interesting in buying such a device?

“Jonathan Yaney, founder and CEO of SpinLaunch, has announced that the company has been awarded a responsive launch prototype contract from the Department of Defense (DOD), facilitated by the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU).”

In June 2019, Yaney signed a contract with the U.S. Defense Department to supply it with kinetic satellite launchers. Two years later, the company has completed a suborbital launch and is looking for a coastal location for an orbital test.

Somewhere in the afterlife, Mad Mike is giving them a thumbs-up.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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