The collapse of costs to enter orbit has stimulated a boom in the space sector, giving way to a real race for increasingly effective, profitable and economic applications. A private startup now plans to cut the cost to just € 250.000 per launch, "throwing" rockets into space rather than launching it with a propellant.
In the last decade, the pioneering work of Space X has shown that putting things into orbit may not be so expensive, and that there are viable business opportunities in the private space sector. In combination with advances in satellite technology, there is now a thriving market for small and inexpensive spacecraft in low Earth orbit that do everything from remote sensing to providing broadband Internet access. And now Spinlaunch arrives.
Going into orbit still costs a million euros
Costs drop drastically, it was said, but the cheapest option to reach Earth's orbit (a ride on Space X's Falcon 9) still costs 1 million euros. And launches only happen twice a month at best. The Californian startup SpinLaunch says that its technology will allow up to five launches per day for a price of 250.000 euros. A quarter of the cost, 148 more launches per month.
Spinlaunch has operated almost secretly since its founding in 2014, but last month made Wired USA take a peek at its ambitious plans. The idea is to build a centrifuge the size of a football field that will spin a rocket until it reaches one kilometer per hour and then leave it in the void. The mechanism is the same as the basis of the weight throw, to understand each other.
To date, the company has built a prototype of about 12 meters in diameter that managed to carry a 5kg "bullet" at 6500km / h, but is now in the process of building one three times larger in New Mexico's Spaceport America. Spinlaunch hopes to be able to launch 50kg heavy test vehicles in suborbital flights by the end of this year.
How the centrifuge works
The centrifuge, the “launcher” device used by Spinlaunch, consists of an electric motor that rotates a long arm in Kevlar and carbon fiber. A launch vehicle is attached at one end with a counterweight on the other side and is rotated into a partial vacuum to avoid air resistance.
The centrifuge slowly increases the speed for a few hours, and when it is at maximum speed the rocket is released and a special lock is released for the time necessary to make it fly out of the launch tube.
Can speed be enough to launch a rocket into orbit?
I'll be brief: no. Although fast, this speed will not be enough to send a rocket into orbit, so the rocket will have small engines that will fire at 60.000 meters high. The air at this altitude is so thin that it only takes a minute to burn, drastically reducing the fuel bill.
SpinLaunch has already built a 7,5-meter test model of the launch vehicle, which will be able to carry a 90kg satellite.
The company raised $ 80 million from some distinguished supporters, including Airbus and Alphabet. He also obtained a contract from the United States Department of Defense as part of a program to develop the ability to launch satellites at very short notice.
And now my famous doubts
Not surprisingly, however, there is considerable skepticism. Many engineers raised doubts that rockets and satellites would be able to withstand the incredible g forces (10.000 times stronger than gravity) they would be subjected to in the centrifuge.
Others have suggested that when the rocket is released, the transition from the centrifuge vacuum to the much denser atmosphere could be like hitting a wall.
The founder and CEO Jonathan Yaney he said he tested all types of components in the centrifuge, including radios, batteries, GPS modules and even an iPhone, and they all survived.
He admitted that the launch vehicle will be more like a missile than a rocket and some components may need to be "beefed up", but overall the system works.
There is still a long way to go, though, and in the meantime there are many other players trying to play this game. The price of Space X releases continues to fall, RocketLab already offers dedicated missions for small satellites. The startup Astra also aims to launch items for "only" 2,5 million daily and that price could still drop. Did I tell you about Virgin Orbit's Launcher One? What about the Alfa from Firefly, the Ariane Group Vega C rocket? What about the Small India satellite launch vehicle, which could debut this year?