By Ashlee Vance
Flying cars. Cures for death. And now … space catapults. Bless you, California, for not letting reality get you down.
On Thursday, a Silicon Valley startup called SpinLaunch Inc. will reveal the first details of its plans to build a machine meant to hurl rockets into space. To achieve that goal, SpinLaunch has secured $40 million from some top technology investors, said Jonathan Yaney, the founder.
The company remains tight-lipped about exactly how this contraption will work, although its name gives away the basic idea. Rather than using propellants like kerosene and liquid oxygen to ignite a fire under a rocket, SpinLaunch plans to get a rocket spinning in a circle at up to 5,000 miles per hour and then let it go—more or less throwing the rocket to the edge of space, at which point it can light up and deliver objects like satellites into orbit.
Why would anyone do such a thing? Well, Yaney is trying to work around the limits that physics have placed on the rocket launch industry for decades. To overcome gravity and Earth’s atmosphere, rockets must be almost perfectly engineered and, even then, can only push a relatively small payload into space. The items carried on a typical rocket, for example, make up less than 5 percent of the rocket’s mass, with the rest going toward fuel and the rocket’s body. (An airplane, by contrast, can dedicate up to half its mass to cargo.)
SpinLaunch’s so-called kinetic energy launch system would use electricity to accelerate a projectile and help do much of the dirty work fighting through gravity and the atmosphere. In theory, this means the company could build a simpler, less expensive rocket that’s more efficient at ferrying satellites. “Some people call it a non-rocket launch,” said Yaney. “It seems crazy. It seems fantastic. But we are actually using relatively low-tech industrial components to break this problem into manageable chunks.”
An impressive group of investors have signed on to support Yaney’s vision. The bulk of the $40 million came from Alphabet Inc.’s GV (formerly Google Ventures), Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Airbus Ventures.
Over the past few years, the rocket industry has become quite crowded. Following in the footsteps of Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., dozens of companies have appeared, trying to make small, cheap rockets that can be launched every week or perhaps even every day. These smaller rockets have been built to carry a new breed of shoebox-sized satellites—dubbed smallsats—that are packed full of imaging, telecommunications and scientific equipment. The small rockets, though, are really just miniaturized versions of the large, traditional rockets that have flown for decades. SpinLaunch is an entirely new take on the rocket-launch concept itself.
“We are very intrigued by SpinLaunch’s innovative use of rotational kinetic energy to revolutionize the smallsat market,” Wen Hsieh, a general partner at Kleiner Perkins, said in an emailed statement. “SpinLaunch can be powered by renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, thereby eliminating the use of toxic and dangerous rocket fuels.”
SpinLaunch has a working prototype of its launcher, although the company has declined to provide details on exactly how the machine operates or will compare to its final system. The startup plans to begin launching by 2022. It will charge less than $500,000 per launch and be able to send up multiple rockets per day. The world’s top rocket companies usually launch about once a month, and most of SpinLaunch’s rivals have been aiming for $2 million to $10 million per launch for small rockets. If the startup were able to reach its goals, it would easily be the cheapest and most prolific small launcher on the market.
The company will, of course, need to build its own launch facility and then prove this technology actually works—no small feat. “We are evaluating five potential launch sites within the United States,” Yaney said.
Yaney grew up in California and has run a variety of businesses, from software makers to construction companies. When it comes to aerospace engineering, he’s self-taught, having pored over textbooks in the years leading up to the founding of SpinLaunch in 2014.
The idea of a rocket slingshot seems like science-fiction, and Yaney has nothing resembling the classic background for a rocket maker. Still, some experts in the field who have seen the prototype were impressed by Yaney and think the company has a fighting chance. One such believer is Simon “Pete” Worden, the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center and a well-known expert in the aerospace field who’s unaffiliated with SpinLaunch. “It’s a very good approach in my opinion,” Worden said.
Photo Credit: Bloomberg / Source: NASA