News from Space: The Slingatron

slingatronPlacing things into orbit is something humanity has been doing since the 1940’s, beginning with Germany’s V2 Rockets, then giving way to artificial satellites like Sputnik in the 1950’s. These efforts really came into their own during the 1960’s and since, when manned missions reached high orbit and even the Moon. But despite all these  milestones, little has been done to address the problems of cost.

Ever since space travel began in earnest, the only way to send satellites, supplies and shuttle craft into orbit has been with rockets. Even at its cheapest, a space launch can still cost an estimated $2000 per pound per mission, due to the fact that the rockets employed are either destroyed or rendered unusable once they’ve completed their mission.

slingatron-20Attempts to create reusable launch systems, like the SpaceX Grasshopper, is one solution. But another involves “slinging” payloads into orbit, rather than launching them. That’s what HyperV Technologies Corp. of Chantilly, Virginia is hoping to achieve with their design for a “mechanical hypervelocity mass accelerator”, otherwise known as a “slingatron”.

Invented by Derek Tidman in the 1990s, the slingatron replaces rockets with a more sophisticated version of the sling. However, the principle differs somewhat in that the device uses something far more sophisticated than circumferential force. In the end, the name cyclotron might be more apt, which is a very simple particle accelerator.


slingatron-11Utilizing a vacuum tube and a series of magnetic/electostatic plates of opposing charges, an atomic particle (such as a proton) is introduced and sent back and forth as the polarity of the plates are flipped. As the frequency of the flipping is increased, the proton moved faster and faster in a series of spirals until it reaches the rim and shoots out a window at extremely high velocity.

The slingatron achieves the same result, but instead uses a spiral tube which gyrate on a series of flywheels along its length. As the slingatron gyrates, a projectile is introduced and the centripetal force pulls the projectile along. As the projectile slides through larger and larger turns of the spiral, the centripetal forces increase until the projectile shoots out the muzzle, traveling at several kilometers per second.

slingatron-13Ultimately, the goal here is to build a slingatron big enough to fire a projectile at velocities exceeding 7 km/s (25,000 km/h, 15,600 mph) to put it into orbit. With rapid turnarounds and thousands of launches per year while all of the launch system remains on Earth, the developers claim that the slingatron will offer lower costs for getting payloads into orbit.

However, there are weaknesses to this idea as well. For starters, any projectile going into space will also need to be fitted a small set of rockets for final orbit insertion and corrections. In addition, the G-forces involved in such launches would be tremendous – up to 60,000 times the force of gravity – which means it would be useless for sending up manned missions.

slingatron-15In the end, only the most solid state and hardened of satellites would have a chance of survival. The developers say that a larger slingatron would reduce the forces, but even with a reduction by a factor of 10,000, it would still be restricted to very robust cargoes. This makes it an attractive options for sending supplies into space, but not much else.

Still, given the costs associated with keeping the ISS supplied, and ensuring that future settlements in space have all the goods and equipment they need, a series of slingatrons may be a very viable solution in the not-to-distant future. Combined with concepts like the space penetrator, which fired bullet-like spaceships into space, the cost associated with space travel may be dropping substantially in coming decades.

All of this could add up to a great deal more space traffic coming to and from Earth in the not-too-distant future as well. I hope we have the foresight to construct some “space lanes” and keep them open! And in the meantime, enjoy this video interview of Dr. F. Douglas Witherspoon explaining the concept of the slingatron:


News From Space: SpaceXs Reusable “Grasshopper” Rocket

spaceX_elonmuskThe concept of commercial spaceflight has been growing considerably in recent years. Basically, the idea is that it would be private aerospace companies that would responsible for ferrying people to and from space and putting commercial satellites in orbit, thus leaving space agencies free to conduct more crucial research and deep space exploration missions.

Intrinsic to this dream is the creation of a cheaper, reusable rocket system, something that can be deployed, landed, and redeployed. This will not only save the companies responsible for this new age of space travel billions of dollars, it will make a whole series of projects possible – like Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) arrays, commercial trips to the Moon, and bigger, more elaborate space stations in orbit.

spacex_grasshopperAnd that’s precisely what SpaceX founder Elon Musk is working on with his “Grasshopper” rocket system. Designed to be reusable, the company has been running the Grasshopper through an ongoing series of tests to make sure it can take off, achieve orbit, and then successfully return to the Earth and land in one piece. In the latest test, the Grasshopper achieved its highest flight yet – reaching 80 meters (263 feet) – before sticking its landing.

The flight took place on March 7th, and it was the fourth of its kind to be conducted at the SpaceX’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. And though the flight was unmanned, the crews placed a dummy dressed like Johnny Cash into the side, which might explain why the footage of the test featured the song “Ring of Fire” in the background.

spacex-grasshopper-highest-leapWhile this achievement might seem modest to some, its necessary to keep in mind that this is a very new concept. In addition, with each successive flight, the altitudes achieved have increased exponentially. In its first test flight in September of last year, the Grasshopper reached a height of only 2.5 meters (8.2 feet). In the two following tests in November and December, the rocket reached a height of 5.4 meters (17.7 feet) and 40 meters (131 feet) respectively.

With this latest flight, SpaceX believes it is getting close to their goal of a reusable rocket and its ultimate goal of making space travel cheaper and easier. Upon completion of this latest test, the company had positive things to say about the new rocket system:

With Grasshopper, SpaceX engineers are testing the technology that would enable a launched rocket to land intact, rather than burning up upon reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere.

Who knows? Given a few more tests, they might just be able to break atmo and land successfully. Then, all SpaceX has to do is sit back and watch their stock price jump by about a million points. At which time, I’m thinking missions will pour in for the deployment of just about any bit of space gear imaginable! Welcome to the era of renewed space exploration, my friends!

And be sure to check out this video of the Grasshopper makings its most recent jump!