New Tech Flings a Projectile into Space

In 2021, a startup tested a system capable of actually throwing objects into outer space.

SpinLaunch’s accelerators don’t use rocket engines. Instead, the drum-shaped launchers use a carbon fiber tether to spin payloads at supersonic velocity. Once up to speed, it releases them into the atmosphere. Soon, the company plans to launch its first orbital craft.

In late October, a preliminary unit called the Suborbital Accelerator successfully fired a test projectile at supersonic speed. The 90-metre-tall machine recently launched its first test flight in New Mexico, at privately-owned launch facility Spaceport America.

How to throw a space projectile

To launch payloads, the system uses an accelerator powered by an electric drive. Here’s how it works: First, the projectile starts whipping around at the end of a carbon fiber tether inside a vertical, disc-shaped, vacuum chamber. Once it reaches speeds of around 8,047kph (many times the speed of sound), it releases the cargo through the launch tube.

SpinLaunch envisions the system as a solution to rocket launch emissions. If implemented as planned, it says its accelerator could cut fuel use by four times compared to a traditional launch. It is also one-tenth as expensive. It plans on handling multiple launches per day.

Big plans: SpinLaunch in context

The existing Suborbital Accelerator is also the predecessor to another, more capable iteration. The L100 Orbital Mass Accelerator would operate similarly, but be capable of launching 200kg satellites into orbit. The system will require tweaks and reinforcements to withstand forces 10,000 times stronger than gravity. But testing has proven that some satellites can survive such conditions.


A rendering of the bigger SpinLaunch L100.


Non-fictionally, people have explored the idea of launching spacecraft without rockets before. In the 1960s, a joint project between the U.S. and Canada called Project Harp aimed to fire projectiles into orbit with what amounted to a gun. Later, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s Project Babylon attempted to revive the project but abandoned it when the lead engineer was assassinated.

The Suborbital Accelerator may be more of a small step than a giant leap toward zero-emissions space travel, as SpinLaunch proposes. But it’s a start; the company plans to continue testing during 2022, in preparation to fling its first customers’ satellites into space in late 2024.