FFF#16 — SpinLaunch: A potential wonder

Posting every Friday at noon is how I act in solidarity with young climate strikers all over the world who want their elders to save their future. 

Every day my Twitter feed has at least a few people adding this to their #climateaction tweet: “None of this matters until we eradicate the fossil fuel industry!”

Climate action advocates tend to be a testy bunch, like my inspiration, Greta Thunberg. Many of them are so appalled at the foot-draggers who are not reducing emissions NOW they have a lot of negative things to offer to the conversation!

Star forming nebula in small Magellanic Cloud

Keep an eye out for wonder

But people are trying — maybe we should look concentrate on how great they are! After all, Proverbs 17:22 says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”

So let’s talk about SpinLaunch. There is a bit of wonder out there in Long Beach. This company has been in the news all month because they had their first test launch out of SpacePort in New Mexico late last year. (Yes, SpacePort  exists).

Space flight is a pollution nightmare and hugely expensive. SpinLaunch is trying to figure out how to use sun power electricity to spin a projectile so fast in their vacuum chamber it can make it out of the atmosphere, pin a satellite into space, and return to Earth for re-use. They have a much greener and cheaper approach. Although space is going to start looking like a beach on Eleuthera pretty soon with all the trash we throw out there. But let’s try to stay positive.

Here is an excited video about SpinLaunch’s accomplishments. They are the first of fifteen technologies these YouTubers applaud:

You can see what CNBC says about SpinLaunch, too. Here are some internet critics dissecting the video. But let’s stay hopeful.

Will this wonder work?

A more even assessment comes from Michael Barnard at CleanTechnica, where they are devoted to catalyzing the clean tech revolution through industry coverage with journalistic integrity.

Barnard doubts SpinLaunch will create a full-size launcher and doubts their idea will be found necessary until space gets more profitable. But we are looking at possibilities here.

In October, SpinLaunch threw a 10-meter projectile over six miles into the sky and retrieved it. They did it using electricity instead of rocket fuel. And they did it in a novel way that might eventually prove useful.

Their “launcher is a giant solid sling inside a vacuum chamber. It has a big counterweight on a short arm at one end, and a long end that holds the payload at the other. Over 90 minutes or so, it uses electricity to bring the rotating arm with the dart on it up to absurd revolutions per second, about 10,000 gravities of centripetal force. Then, at exactly the right microsecond, they let the dart go. It goes up through a tube with a light plastic sheet keeping the vacuum in and air out, and continues upward under its own inertia for 10 kilometers right now.”

The launcher won’t be too useful until it can throw satellites with final stage rockets into orbit. They have not made something that can do that yet. But their idea was interesting enough to warrant $75 million in funding. $38 million of that went to build the sub-scale prototype, which is the biggest vacuum chamber in the world to date. Their successful test opens the ways for more investment (and the Pentagon has been knocking at their door).

Their intention is to craft a sabot — a surrounding aerodynamic shell — which wraps around a thruster, fuel tanks, and payload. Up in orbit, or near orbit, the sabot will pop apart, leaving the simple space vehicle to deliver the payload to its final orbit before it presumably has its own orbit degrade and becomes a brief flash of light in the sky somewhere.

However, there are a lot of challenges to overcome before SpinLaunch might be considered a competitor to SpaceX, not to mention the much easier target, Blue Origin.

Here are several Barnard listed:

  • The small prototype was an amazing piece of engineering. But the much bigger system is a huge risk to fund.
  • The sabot and payload have to be able to survive 10,000G lateral forces, and then the orbital vehicle and payload have to manage the rocket forces when they kick in.
  • The gripping component of the spinning arm has to be able to support the sabot at 10,000Gs and also release it in a microsecond without causing any wobble. That’s an extreme engineering feat.
  • The rotating arm’s moment of inertia is going to change radically and instantly at release. The buildup of velocity takes 90 minutes, so it’s easy to balance, but the release is instant, with a couple of tons of mass at 10,000Gs disappearing at the long end of the arm. Getting the mechanics of that right is another extreme engineering feat.
  • The bottom parts of Earth’s atmosphere are really hard. When the sabot supersonically speeds through them there will be some sonic booms. They won’t be a good neighbor to have. The whole thing might work better on the moon or Mars. But since no one is planning to mine the moon or Mars any time soon, this big idea might sit on the shelf.

Thank God for brilliant people planning green alternatives to the fossil fuel industry, which must be eradicated before Greta’s home town is underwater.

1 thought on “FFF#16 — SpinLaunch: A potential wonder

  1. One of the readers says via email: Side note. The Chinese recently found Helium 3 on the Moon. So it turns out, there is in fact, a space race to mine material on the moon and this technology might swing the balance.:

Leave a Reply