Using a slingshot to launch things into space sounds like an ambitious Evel Knievel trick. But, later this year, NASA is doing just that—but with a payload. The space agency has partnered with space technology company SpinLaunch. In October 2021, the company completed the first slingshot test launch using its suborbital mass accelerator. Now, it’s setting its sights on NASA. And should it all work out, this could be a game-changing partnership that launches small rockets and satellites in a more sustainable manner.
The company’s enormous suborbital mass accelerator—which is larger than the Statue of Liberty, for measure—uses a rotating carbon-fiber arm to launch a vehicle into space. According to SpinLaunch, its Orbital Accelerator uses speeds up to 5,000 mph to rotate the arm around a 300-foot diameter steel vacuum chamber. This method slingshots the vehicles containing a small rocket or satellite into space. And it does so in a very fuel-effective way.
This is how SpinLaunch explains its more environmental approach to shooting satellites into space.
By doing so, over 70 percent of the fuel and structures that make up a typical rocket can be eliminated. The company leverages existing industrial hardware and commonly available materials to construct the innovative accelerator system, achieving hypersonic launch speeds without the need for any fundamental advancements in material science or usage of emerging technologies. After ascending above the stratosphere, a small, inexpensive propulsive stage provides the final required velocity for orbital insertion and positioning. Through this unique approach, SpinLaunch is providing a fundamentally new way to access space.
Fuel effective, potentially cost effective, and it’s a giant slingshot? Color us intrigued.
Later in 2022, NASA will test out SpinLaunch’s system, sending a payload into space. (We first saw this at Design TAXI.) The launch, which doesn’t have a publicly disclosed date yet, will take place at New Mexico’s Spaceport America. Similar to SpinLaunch’s other test flights, the Orbital Accelerator’s speed will linger a little over 1,000 mph. Upon the payload’s recovery, the two organizations will study the data and publicly disclose the findings. SpinLaunch is aiming to start its first orbital test launches in 2025.
After its first test launch, SpinLaunch released a pair of YouTube videos demonstrating the orbital mass accelerator. This one takes a look at exactly how the satellites and rockets catapult into space.
The lingering question on most people’s mind is whether NASA is going to send astronauts into space using this giant space slingshot. That answer is a resounding no. The SpinLaunch Orbital Accelerator is exclusively for smaller vehicles—not manned flights.