A prototype car is launched from the company’s suborbital accelerator during its first test flight on October 22, 2021 at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
SpinLaunch, a startup that is building an alternative method of launching spacecraft into orbit, last month completed the successful first test flight of a prototype in New Mexico.
The Long Beach, California-based company is developing a launch system that uses kinetic energy as its primary method of getting off the ground ̵[ads1]1; with a vacuum-sealed centrifuge that spins the rocket at several times the speed of sound before being released.
“It’s a radically different way of accelerating projectiles and launching vehicles at hypersonic speeds using a ground-based system,” SpinLaunch chief Jonathan Yaney told CNBC. “This is about building a company and a space launch system that will enter the commercial markets with a very high cadence and launch at the lowest cost in the industry.”
Spinlaunch’s successful test on October 22 in Spaceport America, New Mexico, was founded in 2014 by Yaney and marks a major milestone in the company’s progress. SpinLaunch has largely remained quiet until now, which Yaney explained was due to the company’s ambitions.
“I find that the more daring and crazy the project is, the better you just have to work on it – instead of being out there talking about it,” Yaney said. “We had to prove to ourselves that we could actually do this.”
SpinLaunch has to date raised $ 110 million from investors including Kleiner Perkins, Google Ventures, Airbus Ventures, Catapult Ventures, Lauder Partners and McKinley Capital.
The first flight
The company’s suborbital accelerator at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
The SpinLaunch suborbital accelerator represents a third-scale version, but – more than 300 feet, “higher than the Statue of Liberty” – Yaney stressed that this is the size the company needs “to really prove the technology”.
The vacuum chamber holds a rotating arm, which Yaney said accelerates the projectile to high speed and then, “in less than a millisecond,” releases the vehicle for launch. The suborbital project is about 10 feet long, but “goes as fast as the orbital system needs, which is many thousands of miles per hour,” Yaney added.
“We can essentially validate our aerodynamic models for how our orbital launch vehicles are going to be, and that allows us to try out new technologies when it comes to trigger mechanisms,” Yaney said.
SpinLaunch’s first suborbital flight utilized approximately 20% of the accelerator’s full launch capacity, reaching a test altitude “tens of thousands of feet,” according to Yaney.
While the first test aircraft did not have a rocket engine on board, SpinLaunch plans to add it and other internal systems to later suborbital test flights. The company also plans to recover and reuse its vehicles, and Yaney noted that the company recovered the first “and it is absolutely airworthy.”
The current SpinLaunch test plan has the company to conduct around 30 suborbital test flights over the next six to eight months from Spaceport America.
Moving towards orbital launch
A rendering shows a section of the company’s planned orbital launch vehicle, with its internal rocket engines and the spacecraft’s payload.
SpinLaunch is now completing the design of its full-scale system, and Yaney says that testing to date has eliminated approximately 90% of the system’s risk.
Traditional rockets use a large booster, typically with a number of engines, to lift off the ground. This means that most of the rocket’s mass at launch is fuel, with only a small percentage of its total mass available to carry payloads. SpinLaunch’s approach aims to turn the “rocket equation” upside down, said Yaney, who would be “dramatic” in reducing the size of the rocket, as well as its complexity and cost.
The SpinLaunch design for the track vehicle will be able to carry around 200 kilos of payload to the track, equivalent to a few small satellites.
A rendering of an orbital launch vehicle loaded into the company’s accelerator.
The company concludes an agreement for the location of its first orbital launch system, and Yaney notes that it will not be in Spaceport America, but rather in a “coastal location.”
“It’s a site that must be able to support dozens of launches per day,” said Yaney.
SpinLaunch declined to comment on the backlog of customer launch contracts, but the company signed a contract with the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit in 2019 for its first experimental orbital launches.