Spun into space
The journey into space has kindled plenty of pioneering spirit, with visions having extended from balloons all the way to elevators. The most promising approach as an alternative to space rockets as launch vehicles has been ballistic systems shooting flying objects into orbit like canon projectiles. Ultimately, though, rockets have remained the most commonly used means of transportation to outer space. The problem is that the fight against the force of gravity entails burning huge amounts of fuel that have to be lifted off the ground along with payload. The fuel for the various ignition stages, for instance, accounts for 90 percent of the 300 metric tons (330 short tons) of the Saturn V rocket’s weight at liftoff.
Particularly harmful to the climate are fuels containing kerosene, which are blown directly into the atmosphere. A kerosene-powered rocket launch emits as much CO2 as a 10,000-kilometer (6,200-mile) long-haul flight. And even when burning hydrogen fuel steam is released into the atmosphere, which has an adverse effect on the climate as well.
The approach pursued by SpinLaunch totally eliminates the need for any infernal fireworks because the concept relies on centrifugal forces for liftoff. At the core of such a launch system is an electrically powered centrifuge whose 45-meter (148-feet) long arm rotates inside a vacuum chamber – until the projectile attached to a retaining arm including payload reaches a speed of more than 2,200 m/s (7,200 ft/s ; 8,000 km/h / 5,000 mph). That’s when the rocket is released and propelled toward the sky. An initial launch from a 1:3-scale test facility has already been successful: the three-meter (10-feet) long projectile flew to an altitude of several kilometers, according to the operators.
Even the SpinLaunch system cannot operate entirely without fuel, though: for the final thrust required to reach the target orbit, a conventional rocket engine has to be ignited. Overall, however, the system “burns” four times less energy and ten times less money than a conventional rocket-powered space flight, according to SpinLaunch. Crewed flights, though, are not possible due to the extremely high centrifugal forces of more than 10,000 g in the launch system.