For today’s commercial space companies providing launch services to orbit, the name of the game is simple: “do it cheaper.” To reduce the costs of launching payloads to space and encourage the commercialization of Low Earth Orbit (LEO), entrepreneurs have turned to everything from reusable rockets and 3-D printing to air-launch vehicles and high-altitude balloons. And yet, there is one concept that truly seems like something out of this world!

This concept is known as a mass accelerator, a kinetic energy space launch system that is an alternative to chemical rockets. In recent news, the commercial space company SpinLaunch conducted the first launch test of its Suborbital Accelerator for the first time. The success of this vertical test is a crucial stepping stone towards the creation of the company’s proposed Orbital Launch System (OLS), which will conduct regular payload launches soon.

In 2018, Universe Today reported on how SpinLaunch and its CEO Jonathan Yaney had come out of “stealth mode” and were seeking Series A funding. By 2019, the company broke ground on its test facility at Spaceport America, followed by the construction of the Suborbital Accelerator. Measuring 33 meters in diameter (108 ft) in diameter, the Suborbital Accelerator is the world’s tallest instrument of its kind and cost about $38 million to build.

Artist’s rendering of the inside of SpinLaunch’s kinetic launch system and its long, dark tether. Credit: SpinLaunch

The system is a one-third-scale model of the OLS system that is currently under development and relies on the same components. Like the OLS, the Suborbital Accelerator uses a vacuum-sealed centrifuge to spin a rocket and then catapult it to space at up to 8,000 km/h (5,000 mph). The rotational kinetic energy comes from ground-based electricity provided by solar and wind (which would eliminate the carbon footprint of rocket launches).

Once the rocket reaches an altitude of roughly 61,000 m (200,000 ft), the rocket ignites its engines to reach a speed of 28,200 km/h (17,500 mph) and reach Low Earth Orbit (LEO). If successful, this system will vastly reduce the associated cost and energy of sending payloads to space while increasing the frequency of launches. According to projections, the OLS will reduce the cost of individual space launched by a factor of 20 (less than $500,000).

Since the 1960s, NASA has been exploring this technology as an alternative to rocket launches. While it was never used, NASA has continued to develop this technology through the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Kennedy Space Center. Here, engineers have been working on concepts like the Magnetic Levitation (MagLev) System to launch spaceplanes horizontally using scramjets on an electrified track.

The SpinLaunch test took place on October 22nd, 2021, where the Suborbital Accelerator (a technology demonstrator) was powered up at the company’s flight test facility – located at Spaceport America in the deserts of New Mexico. For this test, the Suborbital Accelerator was powered up to 20% of its total capacity and reportedly launched a 3 meter (10 foot) passive projectile to an altitude of “tens of thousands of feet” (see video below).

Scott McLaughlin, Spaceport America’s executive director, was there to witness the successful test launch. As he was quoted as saying by Aerospace Testing International:

“In just a little over two years, and even with the difficulties of Covid-19, SpinLaunch was able to bring their site to life and conduct their first high-altitude operational launch. We are very happy for them and expect that they will be important contributors to New Mexico’s growing aerospace ecosystem for years to come.”

With this first test under its belt, SpinLaunch will be moving ahead with the development
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