Unusual Launch Strategies – A Space Launch Oddity in The Works17th Apr 2023
You can always rely on the space industry to approach a problem with creative, and sometimes seemingly far-fetched answers. Unusual launch strategies are a perfect example of this ingenuity.
While the stereotypical image of space launches from Hollywood and history sees a rocket pointing towards the skies, there are many different approaches to taking payloads into orbit.
We’ve seen horizontal launches used with success throughout history. These launches involve aircraft that take off like an aeroplane (in fact, they are usually modified planes). They don’t need as much thrust and power to get to a high altitude, and once they reach the desired altitude they release a rocket from under their wings. The rocket then ignites and completes the rest of the journey into space.
Horizontal launches have been in the news recently, with the failed Virgin Orbit attempt using a modified Boeing 747-400 they called “Cosmic Girl” for the launch. While a second-stage anomaly caused this mission to fail, there are plenty of success stories for horizontal launch. Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus has sent payloads into space from underneath a Lockheed L-1011 since the mid 1990s.
The methods we have are imperfect, or expensive, or ecological disasters, of course, and this has led to scientists trying to innovate and come up with unusual launch strategies that led to new rockets and methods to get satellites into space.
Snowdonia Spaceport’s 45 Degree Launch
The Welsh Government has big ideas when it comes to the Space Industry, and Cardiff aims to generate £2 bn each year in revenue by 2030, which would mean around 5% of the global space market.
Snowdonia Spaceport is one of the stepping stones to the Welsh goal. A planetarium and space observatory are planned, and could be built soon at the site on Gwynedd airfield. 2023 is also slated to be the year of the first launches from Snowdonia Aerospace Centre (SAC) thanks to one of the tenants, Newton Launch Systems.
Newton Launch Systems has built a prototype rocket that may technically be classed as a horizontal launch, but actually, the plan is to launch the reusable rocket at a 45-degree angle along a rail track.
The site’s huge ambitions have not been met with huge investment, however, especially when compared to SaxaVord and Spaceport Cornwall. Meagre sums have been invested, leading to the creative approach.
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We’ve provided significant practical and financial support to Spaceport Snowdonia over the last decade and backed them to become Wales’ proposed spaceport – all of which ensures they are well placed to support the UK’s space aspirations.”
However, plans for new road infrastructure in the area have been scrapped, and Newton Launch Systems are working within some serious limitations. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say.
SAC CEO Lee Paul was philosophical about the launch: “This approach is also a fitting way to use a site that has a heritage of experimental flight testing.”
It is possible that we could see test launches from the Llanbedr site later in 2023.
Up, Up and Away in a Passenger Balloon
Using balloons to reach space is not a new concept. Balloons have been used to take crews into near space and even to perform incredible skydives such as those by Felix Baumgartner in 2012 and then by Alan Eustace in 2014, who dived from an incredible height of 41,419 metres.
NASA has been using balloons as satellites since the 1960s, when they launched Project Echo. Echo 1A was put into an orbit of 944 to 1,048 miles above Earth by a Thor Delta Rocket. The spacecraft was around 98 feet in diameter and made of thin Mylar. This craft was crucial in demonstrating two-way communications in the infancy of satellites.
Fast forward to the modern age, and we see a huge desire for space tourism among billionaires (and aspiring billionaires). There is a demand to create a viable option to take passengers to a height where they can see a unique perspective on life, and the Earth.
Multiple companies are working on making this a reality, and though none of the current plans plan to take passengers all the way past the Kármán line (which many define as the start of Space). However, the craft will go three times as high as a commercial plane and show the curvature of the Earth, along with spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime views.
Space Perspective is one of the companies working on offering this form of space tourism, with “a gentle, meticulously crafted spaceflight in our one-of-a-kind Space Lounge during your six-hour journey, complete with meal and cocktails.”
Many space craft used in the history of space fiction travel needed to be delivered into space by a balloon. Space Perspective plans to lift their “Spaceship Neptune” into space by a “Space Balloon” which is fueled by renewable hydrogen and rises to space at a very gentle 12mph. That’s a relief for those who ordered the meal and cocktails, as nobody ever enjoyed a Tom Collins whilst experiencing the upward thrust of a rocket.
French startup Stratoflight and engineering company Expleo are working on similar technology. They plan to use a balloon-based craft to take capsules to space, with pods capable of carrying four passengers (and two pilots).
The balloon will ascend using hydrogen gas. On its descent, the system gradually releases air to lower the balloon before switching to fly-by-wire commands, and deploying a parafoil to help pilots guide the plane back to its landing field.
This craft will reach 22 miles above ground level at its highest point, and also offers a relaxed and luxurious day trip to near space.
A third company, Iwaya Giken, based in Sapporo, is also planning to offer similar flights in the coming years. This is similar in concept but it uses helium for the ascent, and a drum-shaped plastic cabin with a viewing platform. Two people will rise in the cabin for around two hours and stay at the highest point, around 15 miles up, before gradually descending again.
Space Perspective and Stratoflight both plan to allow people to book their experiences later in 2023 with planned launches between 2024 and 2025.
SpinLaunch Whirl ‘N’ Hurl
File this under “that’s so crazy, it might just work”. Of all the unusual launch strategies found in this article, this one is likely to be the most unusual, and still likely to work!
Why should we deliver payloads using costly and resource-hungry rockets when we can just hurl them into space using a gigantic centrifuge?
That’s the plan for SpinLaunch, the Californian startup that has already signed a deal with NASA to test their concept.
SpinLaunch will use a “Suborbital Accelerator” which is a huge centrifuge. The craft will be spun around within a vacuum chamber and reach huge levels of speed, before opening a door and slinging the craft out at around six times the speed of sound. 5000 miles per hour, to be precise.
SpinLaunch has already tested their concept using the suborbital accelerator and the tech has proven to be reliable. On the tenth successful test, CEO Jonathan Yaney spoke about the system:
“Today we have accomplished our tenth test flight and it has proven that it’s a system that is repeatedly reliable,” He said. “This is not a rocket and clearly our ability to perform in just eleven months this many tests and have them all function as planned, really is a testament to the nature of our technology.”
NASA will be taking the system for a spin some time in 2023, and expect to hear many more terrible jokes on the “taking it for a spin” theme between now and then.
It is thought that NASA may look to use this technology for commercial launches and to send satellites into space.
The company has already garnered a fair level of attention, with Time Magazine naming them one of their 100 “Most Influential Companies of 2022”. While the concept feels a little crazy and even comical at first, the concept certainly stacks up.
The launch uses an accelerator with an electric drive which can lead to a 4x reduction in the fuel required to reach orbit, and a potential 10x reduction in overall cost. Plus, SpinLaunch would theoretically be able to launch multiple times every day, making it an appealing option for all kinds of private companies looking to deliver payloads into space.
SpinLaunch plans to be capable of taking small satellites into orbit by the year 2026.
A Great Time for Unusual Launch Strategies
The huge interest in private space travel and growing investment in the area has led to a huge number of innovative strategies and potentially opportunistic startups. With all of unusual launch strategies in this guide currently under development, we could be seeing new ways of sending satellites and even people into space in the coming years.