There has been no shortage of exciting developments in the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace) in recent years. These include the ability to retrieve and reuse rockets (in part or whole), new configurations that reduce expendability, and new engines. But beyond making rocket launches more cost-effective, several cutting-edge ideas have been brought forward to make space more accessible. These include SpinLaunch‘s concept for an electric kinetic launch system (aka. a space catapult) that can propel payloads of up to 200 kg (440 lbs) to space.
On September 27th, 2022, SpinLaunch announced the results of its tenth successful flight test of its Suborbital Mass Accelerator (SMA) at Spaceport America, New Mexico. This time, SpinLaunch sent four partner payloads to space with its Suborbital Accelerator Flight Test Vehicle, which provided valuable data about the launch environment and payload integration process. This latest successful test has placed the company and its launch system one step closer to providing low-cost and sustainable launch services for satellites and other small payloads.
Based in Long Beach, California, SpinLaunch was founded in 2014 by Jonathan Yaney, an aerospace enthusiast and self-described “serial entrepreneur” with a long history of co-founding startups. Before founding SpinLaunch, Yaney spent 15 years establishing companies involved in consulting, IT, construction, and aerospace. By 2014, he began working on a new launch technology that would enable a low-cost and sustainable means of sending constellations of satellites to Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
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Another Successful Launch
The company’s 12-meter (39.37 ft) Suborbital Mass Accelerator (SMA), located at Spaceport America in New Mexico, operates on a pretty straightforward principle. The accelerator spins payloads up to 10,000 g and then releases them from its launch tube towards space. Once the launch vehicle reaches orbit, its protective outer casing (similar to a rocket fairing) breaks away, releasing the second stage. This vehicle then ignites its single engine and carries payloads to the desired orbit, where they are released.
This method does away with the need for propellant burns to achieve escape velocity, making it far more environmentally friendly since it does not leave excess carbon emissions in our atmosphere. This latest flight is the tenth test conducted by the company in the eleven months since the SMA became operational in late 2021. Whereas the previous flights, which took place in October 2021 and May 2022, consisted of launch tests that saw test vehicles launched to higher and higher altitudes.
Flight Test 10 was the first flight to include cargo and was witnessed by more than 150 partners, government officials, and commercial space industry advocates. The test saw the Flight Test Vehicle (FTV) deploy all six of its payloads successfully (which were also recovered) and provided critical flight data. Moreover, it demonstrated that standard satellite components used by commercial partners are inherently compatible with the SMA launch system. Said Founder & CEO Yaney in a recent interview with BusinessWire:
“Flight Test 10 represents a key inflection point for SpinLaunch, as we’ve opened the Suborbital Accelerator system externally for our customers, strategic partners, and research groups. The data and insights collected from flight tests will be invaluable for both SpinLaunch, as we further the development of the Orbital Launch system, and for our customers who are looking to us to provide them with low-cost, high-cadence, sustainable access to space.”
As part of the pre-flight qualification process, SpinLaunch accelerated payloads up to 10,000 g using its 12-meter (39.37 ft) Lab Accelerator at its Long Beach headquarters. After clearing the qualification test, the payloads were inspected and integrated into the FTV in preparation for Flight Test 10 at the SMA at Spaceport America.
The six payloads carried by the FTV included two instrumentation payloads that collected data on the flight, plus four partner payloads contributed by NASA, Airbus U.S. Space & Defense, Cornell Engineering, and Outpost. Each was responsible for testing systems vital to the SMA and FTV and gauged the system’s ability to safely launch satellites and other payloads to suborbital altitude and beyond. NASA contributed a Data Acquisition Unit (DAQ) for its payload designed to evaluate the kinetic launch method for future commercial launch opportunities.
This payload was included as part of a NASA Space Act Agreement signed by SpinLaunch to develop, integrate, and fly a sensor suite to space. The DAQ gathered launch environment data using two accelerometers, a gyroscope, a magnetometer, and sensors for pressure, temperature, and humidity. Airbus U.S. Space & Defense provided their satellite sun sensor, a device typically used by spacecraft for attitude control and positioning. As a global leader in satellite systems, Airbus’ payload was intended to see if the extreme loads generated by the launch would impact the sensor signal.
To test this, a team of engineers monitored the sensor’s output signal during the high-g centrifuge test, the pre-flight test, and Flight Test 10. They then compared the output signal during all three phases to the pre-flight data and were pleased with the result. According to their findings, the sensor’s output signal was unaffected during the pre-flight, flight, or recovery phases. This success was a major step in certifying subsystems (like sensors or onboard laboratories) that are more delicate than other flight components for use on SpinLaunch’s orbital launch system.
“Our Airbus U.S. engineering team is excited to work with SpinLaunch in support of this significant advancement of a new accelerated launch concept,” said Airbus U.S. CTO Armen Askijian. “We look forward to continued collaboration and future success.”
The next payload was contributed by the Space Systems Design Studio (SSDS), which is part of the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University. The SSDS is responsible for designing next-generation satellites substantially smaller than CubeSats (called ChipSats) that will provide distributed in-situ measurements of Earth’s upper atmosphere and other planets. As part of Test Flight 10, the SSDS contributed some of their ChipSats, which were released during the flight to test the SpinLaunch-designed payload deployment system.
The payload deployment system is vital to SpinLaunch’s services, which are likely to include satellites of every shape and form. Future tests with SSDS may include high-altitude ChipSat deployments to verify their ability to reenter the atmosphere and follow a trajectory that will cause them to burn up. Said Hunter Adams, a lecturer in Cornell Engineering’s school of electrical and computer engineering:
“Centimeter-scale spacecraft will be a critical tool in future planetary science missions. Deployed en masse from orbit, ChipSats will descend through the atmosphere and down to the surface of this planet and others, gathering spatially distributed datasets as they fall. To plan these missions, we must understand the chaotic trajectories that low-mass and high-surface-area objects take from the top of the atmosphere to the surface of the planet. By conducting experiments with SpinLaunch’s Suborbital Accelerator, we can gather critical information for planning future planetary science missions involving ChipSats. It is absolutely a game-changer for centimeter-scale spacecraft research.”
The fourth payload was contributed by Outpost, a Los Angeles-based aerospace company developing reusable satellites capable of returning to Earth. Their payload consisted of an onboard computer for testing and qualifying the launch system, which validated both and proved that the flight computer is compatible with SpinLaunch’s launch environment. This represents a big step towards broader verification and testing of the kinetic launch system, and Outpost and SpinLaunch plan to continue collaborating in this respect. Said Michael Vergalla, co-founder and CTO at Outpost:
“Outpost and SpinLaunch share the same mission of providing customers with low-cost, rapid launch – which means rethinking the way we access space. Testing our hardware with SpinLaunch’s mass accelerator gives us optionality and provides valuable engineering data for developing our hardware to be compatible with their launch system and unlock the upside of low-cost and high-cadence launch.”
The success of this latest test has effectively demonstrated SpinLaunch’s capability to launch satellites and small payloads to suborbital altitude. It also means the company is on track for sending satellites to orbit and delivering payloads for other missions by 2026. It is also another step on the path toward SpinLaunch realizing its next-generation launcher, the Orbital Mass Accelerator (OMA). As the name suggests, this system will be larger, more powerful, and will be able to send heavier payloads to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), greatly expanding the types of mission profiles the company can provide.
Equally interesting is the wider implications this latest successful test will have for commercial space. The kinetic launch method is part of a growing constellation of services that are changing how we think about going to space. In terms of rockets, most commercial providers offer at least partially-reusable vehicles, single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) vehicles, and air-launch vehicles. Beyond rockets, space agencies and entrepreneurs are pushing the boundaries of orbital balloons, electric rails, mass drivers, and spaceplanes.
The net effect of these low-cost and sustainable launch systems will likely be tremendous, enabling everything from megaconstellations (that don’t cause space debris) to the creation of private space stations and habitats and the commercialization of LEO. Who knows? Such diverse methods for sending payloads to orbit could even pave the way towards some of the most ambitious methods for sending payloads and people to space – like Slingatrons, Sky Hooks, and Space Elevators!
Further Reading: Businesswire