Access to space is becoming increasingly important – for nations as well as for companies. As a result, the demand for satellites is constantly growing. Whoever then wants to launch their satellite into orbit must decide which way and with which technology it should be sent into space. Up to now, larger satellites and astronauts have been put on course with vertically launched carrier rockets. Cubesats and other small satellites can alternatively be brought to a certain altitude with aircraft, from where they are then launched with smaller rockets. To create an alternative and offer cleaner and cheaper rocket launches than with the known propulsion systems, the US company SpinLaunch wants to launch satellites into space with a giant centrifuge. In October, the prototype of its rotary accelerator for suborbital launches was successfully tested at the Spaceport America site in New Mexico.
The idea of firing payloads into orbit is not new. Research had already been conducted on cannons that would catapult satellites or spaceships into space using gas pressure or magnetic tracks. SpinLaunch is now using a large centrifuge similar to those used by fighter pilots and astronauts to test how well they can withstand the physical stress of rapid acceleration and high speeds. In SpinLaunch’s centrifuge, a projectile is spun by a carbon fibre arm in the circular acceleration chamber until the launch speed is reached. It is then released in a fraction of a millisecond and shoots up through a tube, piercing a plastic sheet that has sealed the chamber airtight. But before objects can be propelled into orbit in this way, a problem must be solved: The satellites must withstand strong kinetic forces and be designed accordingly. During the completed test, a three-metre-long projectile was catapulted several kilometres into the air. According to the company, the centrifuge was only running at about 20% of its capacity. To actually reach space, the projectile would still have had to be equipped with a rocket engine to provide the final thrust needed to overcome the Earth’s gravitational pull. The test centrifuge, the so-called suborbital accelerator, has a diameter of about 50 metres and is thus only a third as large as the planned final “centrifugal catapult”. Further tests are to follow in the coming year. By 2024, according to SpinLaunch, they want to offer launches for paying customers and be able to send satellites weighing up to 200 kg into space.
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