WASHINGTON – In the 1960s, the United States and Canada jointly led the HARP [High Altitude Research Project] which, inspired by the concept developed by Jules Verne in his book “From the Earth to the Moon”, aimed to build a cannon of sufficient power to send an object into orbit. The objective than being to find an alternative to rockets, at expensive costs. However, after successfully throwing a projectile weighing nearly 200 kg into lower outer space, the project was canceled.
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Does this mean that, for the moment, nothing has been found better than a rocket or a plane in flight to place satellites in orbit? Finding another solution, such as the challenge taken up by the American company SpinLauch, whose project has attracted investors [including Google Ventures and Airbus Ventures], who have financed it to the tune of 110 million dollars since its creation, in 2014.
The idea of SpinLauch is to develop a “kinetic launch system” by taking up, in broad outline, the principle of the slingshot. In short, it involves placing an object under vacuum in a centrifuge to give it a hypersonic speed before releasing it. Then, at an altitude of about 60 km [200,000 feet], the vehicle starts an engine to reach a speed of 29,000 km / h…. and then be able to release a payload of 200 kg into orbit.
“It’s a radically different way of accelerating projectiles and launching vehicles at hypersonic speeds using a ground system,” commented Jonathan Yaney, CEO of SpinLaunch, interviewed by CNBC, after the announcement of the success of the first test of this “suborbital accelerator”, carried out at SpacePort America, New Mexico, on October 22.
The centrifuge used for this test, at 90 meters high, is a third smaller in size than the one SpinLaunch intends to build for future launches. But this was enough to give a speed of “several thousand kilometers per hour” to a reusable vehicle 3 meters long and thus allow it to perform a suborbital flight. According to Jonathan Yaney, this required only 20% of the power capacity of this “accelerator”.
Thereafter, SpinLaunch plans to perform approximately 30 suborbital test flights, this time with a vehicle equipped with an engine, which was not the case in the test last month. However, the company assures that risk reduction studies have already been 90% completed.
The stake of such a concept is economic. SpinLaunch estimates that its process would cut the cost of putting small satellites into orbit by twenty and provide up to five launches per day. But for that, there must still be such a demand … In any case, the Pentagon has expressed its interest, the latter having notified a contract to SpinLaunch in 2019, via its “Defense Innovation Unit”.
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