Alternative rocket manufacturer SpinLaunch completes its first test flight

SpinLaunch, a start-up developing an alternative method for launching spacecraft into orbit, completed a successful first test flight of a prototype in New Mexico last month.

The Long Beach, California-based company is developing a launch system that uses kinetic energy as the primary method of lifting off the ground – with a vacuum-tight centrifuge that spins the rocket at several times the speed of sound before it is launched.

“It’s a radically different way of accelerating projectiles and launching vehicles with a ground-based system at hypersonic speed,” Jonathan Yaney, CEO of SpinLaunch, told CNBC. “This is about building a company and a space launch system that is entering commercial markets at a very high rate and launching at the lowest cost in the industry.”

The successful SpinLaunch test founded by Yaney in 2014 on October 22nd at Spaceport America in New Mexico marks an important milestone in the company’s development. SpinLaunch has remained largely quiet so far, which Yaney said was due to the company’s ambitions.

“I think the bolder and crazier the project, the better it is to just work on it instead of talking about it outside,” said Yaney. “We had to prove to ourselves that we could actually do it.”

SpinLaunch has raised $ 110 million to date from investors including Kleiner Perkins, Google Ventures, Airbus Ventures, Catapult Ventures, Lauder Partners, and McKinley Capital.

The first flight

The SpinLaunch suborbital accelerator is a one-third scale version, but – about 50 meters tall, “taller than the Statue of Liberty” – Yaney insisted that this is the size the company needed “to get the technology really to prove “.

The vacuum chamber holds a rotating arm that Yaney said would accelerate the projectile to high speed and then release the vehicle for launch “in less than a millisecond”. The suborbital projectile is about 10 feet long, but “goes as fast as the orbital system takes, that’s many thousands of miles per hour,” added Yaney.

“We can essentially validate our aerodynamic models for what our orbital launchers will look like, and it allows us to try out new technologies related to release mechanisms,” said Yaney.

SpinLaunch’s first suborbital flight used approximately 20% of the accelerator’s full power capacity for takeoff and reached a test altitude “in the tens of thousands of feet,” said Yaney.

While the first flight test vehicle did not have a rocket engine on board, SpinLaunch plans to add this and other internal systems in later suborbital test flights. The company also plans to salvage and reuse its vehicles, with Yaney finding that the company is the first “and it’s perfectly airworthy”.

The current SpinLaunch test plan calls for the company to conduct around 30 suborbital test flights from Spaceport America over the next six to eight months.

On the way to orbital launch

SpinLaunch is finalizing the design of its full system, with Yaney saying the tests so far removed about 90% of the system’s risk.

Conventional missiles use a large booster, typically with a series of engines, to take off from the ground. This means that most of the rocket’s mass at launch consists of fuel and only a small percentage of its total mass is available to carry payloads. SpinLaunch’s approach aims to turn the “rocket equation” on its head, Yaney said, which would be “dramatic” to reduce the size of the rocket, as well as its complexity and cost.

The SpinLaunch design for its orbital vehicle could put around 200 kilograms of payload into orbit, the equivalent of a few small satellites.

The company signs an agreement on the location of its first orbital launch system, with Yaney determining it will be at a “coastal location” rather than at Spaceport America.

“It’s a site that needs to be able to support dozens of launches a day,” said Yaney.

SpinLaunch declined to comment on its backlog on customer launch contracts, but the company signed a contract with the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit in 2019 for its first experimental orbital launches.