Long Beach-based SpinLaunch's innovative launch system in New Mexico aims to put satellites into orbit without the use of a rocket. Photo courtesy of SpinLaunch.

The question of how to launch cargo into space without a massive fuel burden is a long-standing conundrum—and it’s one that Long Beach-based SpinLaunch is out to solve.

And the company’s answer—an innovative electric-powered Orbital Accelerator Launch System that uses kinetic energy as the fuel to break the atmospheric barrier, essentially throwing objects into space—is making major strides.

SpinLaunch’s system involves a launch vehicle being attached to a mechanical arm that rotates inside of a large, circular vacuum chamber. Vehicles will reach speeds of up to 5,000 miles per hour before being released through an exit port. Once above the stratosphere, a small amount of fuel is used for a final propulsive stage that helps insert and position the payload in orbit.

It marks a significant change from the current accepted approach to space travel. Traditionally, rockets launched into space have been required to dedicate 90% of their weight to fuel—a major challenge for the prospect of efficiently transporting cargo through space.

A NASA article written in 2012 by International Space Station Expedition 30 and 31 Flight Engineer Don Pettit stated that even a rocket consisting of 85% fuel was “on the extreme edge of our engineering ability to even fabricate.”

Saturn V—considered the most powerful rocket to have ever successfully launched, and one of few able to launch with 85% fuel—weighed approximately 6.2 million pounds when fueled. The maximum payload weight the rocket could take into orbit was just 260,145 pounds, or about 4% of the total weight.

Meanwhile, with SpinLaunch, over 70% of the fuel and structures that comprise a typical rocket can be eliminated, according to the company, leaving more room for a payload in the launch vehicle’s structure.

SpinLaunch was founded by Jonathan Yaney in 2014, and the team there has been at work ever since to develop the ideas that would bring Yaney’s vision of less fuel-reliant space launches to life.

Recent technological advancements—particularly those in microelectronics—have given the SpinLaunch team the tools that it needs to turn the concept into a reality.

A smaller version of SpinLaunch’s final Orbital Accelerator concept—the Suborbital Accelerator Launch System—ran a successful test launch with vehicle recovery in October.

“What started as an innovative idea to make space more accessible has materialized into a technically mature and game changing approach to launch,” Yaney said in a statement.

Having this successful launch under its belt is a major step forward for SpinLaunch. Now that the concept has proven to be feasible in practice, the company can take steps to finetune the system and ensure commercial viability.

This work hasn’t gone unnoticed, with TIME magazine naming SpinLaunch one of the 100 most influential companies of 2022 late last month. The company also announced an agreement with NASA to further test the feasibility and gather data on SpinLaunch’s technology for future commercial launch opportunities.

Under this agreement, SpinLaunch will develop and fly a NASA payload on the Suborbital Accelerator, expected to be completed later this year. The organizations will work together to analyze the data and gauge the system for potential flaws or room for improvement. They will then publish the launch environment data, following a full review.

“The recent launch agreement with NASA marks a key inflection point as SpinLaunch shifts focus from technology development to commercial offerings,” Yaney said.

The agreement is another big step towards SpinLaunch’s next major goal: starting launches on its Orbital Accelerator for clients in 2025. With the successful test launch and this agreement, the company says it is on track to meet its goal of placing satellites in orbit through commercial launches and delivering payloads for clients by that year.

“SpinLaunch is helping customers eliminate the cost, time, and complexity constraints currently driving space-related business models,” the company said in a statement, “ultimately delivering less expensive, scalable access to space.​”

 

Christian May-Suzuki

Christian May-Suzuki is a reporter at the Long Beach Business Journal.