For the last few years, SpaceX has dominated the commercial space industry by pioneering reusable rocket technology and drastically reducing the cost of launching satellites to orbit.
But Jonathan Laney, a serial startup founder, wants space travel to be even cheaper, reducing the costs of a launch from tens of millions of dollars to under $500,000. His plan? Use a giant centrifuge to sling cargo and rockets into orbit.
This is the idea behind SpinLaunch, a company Laney founded in secret in 2014. The company wants to build a giant centrifuge that would harness angular momentum to fling payloads into orbit without any propellant. Alternatively, the centrifuge could be used to launch small rockets to high altitudes where they could then use their thrusters to push them into orbit, eliminating the need for a fuel intensive first stage booster.
“Since the dawn of space exploration, rockets have been the only way to access space” Laney told TechCrunch. “Yet in 70 years, the technology has only made small incremental advances. To truly commercialize and industrialize space, we need 10x tech improvement.”
Until the TechCrunch story was published on Thursday, little was known about SpinLaunch. The company’s website is password protected and job listings describe it in vague terms as a “rapidly growing space launch startup.”
It’s unclear how much the company has actually accomplished technology-wise in the last four years, however. Yaney told TechCrunch that “the core technology has been developed, prototyped, tested and most of the tech risk retired.” Nevertheless, the company didn’t provide any photos of the prototypes it has allegedly created, only a mockup of its future factory.
The main thing now is finding the money to build the giant centrifuge.
SpinLaunch has managed to raise $10 million in funding over the last four years and is now seeking $30 million more in a Series A funding round. A bill was also introduced to the Hawaii state senate last month that would issue $25 million in bonds to the company to help it construct its satellite launch system.
Even if the company raises the necessary capital to pursue the project, it is up against steep odds, technically speaking. NASA has looked into a number of different accelerators over the decades, but none of them were considered viable to pursue as a full space launch system. Moreover, some physicists that TechCrunch spoke with said the cargo will have a hard time withstand air resistance as it is fired through the atmosphere. Launching it from a high powered centrifuge like the one SpinLaunch aims to build could be like hurling the payload at a solid wall.
Still, the cost of lowering access to orbit to under a million dollars would be a huge win for the space industry—and no one ever said space travel was going to be easy.