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Startup SpinLaunch completes first test flight with wild rocket-flinging launch system

Alternative launch company SpinLaunch's accleration chamber is seen at Spaceport America in New Mexico. The system flings rockets toward the sky with a spinning arm.
Alternative launch company SpinLaunch's accleration chamber is seen at Spaceport America in New Mexico. The system flings rockets toward the sky with a spinning arm. (Image credit: SpinLaunch)

A new type of rocket-launching system just got off the ground.

The California-based company SpinLaunch performed the test flight of its novel kinetic-energy-based launch system in New Mexico on Oct. 22, reaching an altitude of "tens of thousands of feet," CEO Jonathan Yaney told CNBC, which first reported the successful launch test. You can see footage of the flight here.

The company has received more than $110 million in venture capital for its system, which spins up a small rocket to hypersonic speed on the ground. Once released, the final design calls for the rocket to shoot up in the air, and only turning on more conventional chemical propulsion when it's well on its way to orbit. 

SpinLaunch has kept pretty quiet about its progress for several years ahead of this launch. "I find that the more audacious and crazy the project is, the better off you are just working on it – rather than being out there talking about it," Yaney told CNBC Tuesday (Nov. 9). "We had to prove to ourselves that we could actually pull this off."

Related: Take a Tour of Spaceport America (Photos)

SpinLaunch uses a spinning arm to accelerate a rocket and fling it into the sky to lower the cost of launch. (Image credit: SpinLaunch)

SpinLaunch was founded in 2014 and is part of a crowded field of firms trying to reduce the costs of launching. SpinLaunch suggests that reducing fuel costs, one of the key barriers to affordable spaceflight, will make their system accessible to customers. (Other companies are taking on cost-saving ideas such as 3D manufacturing parts such as rocket engines, or pursuing reusability of key launch systems.)

For this first test flight, Yaney told CNBC, SpinLaunch used a suborbital accelerator at one-third scale. The scale accelerator is more than 300 feet (91 meters) tall, roughly equivalent to the Statue of Liberty's height. 

This accelerator, after running the projectile through a vacuum chamber on a rotating arm, pushed the 10-foot (3-meter) rocket aloft from Spaceport America in New Mexico at roughly 20% of the accelerator's full power capacity. 

The test projectile "goes as fast as the orbital system needs, which is many thousands of miles an hour," Yaney told CNBC, adding the test will allow them to "validate our aerodynamic models for what our orbital launch vehicles are going to be like, and ... try out new technologies when it comes to release mechanisms."

This first test flight didn't feature a rocket engine, but SpinLaunch plans to include one in future suborbital test flights. The company also plans to pursue reusability for newer rockets, although the first test rocket proved "absolutely flyable" after engineers retrieved it, Yaney said.

While the full-scale system is still under design work, Yaney said SpinLaunch plans to reduce the size, complexity and cost of the rocket when compared to the competition. 

The company expects that its booster won't face the usual problems fuel-carrying rockets have, as the typical rocket has to push its own mass, the mass of the fuel and the mass of the payload off the ground. Without the need to carry so much fuel, SpinLaunch says, the rocket size can accordingly be reduced.

Other parts of the business are still under development, too. The company is seeking a more "coastal location" than Spaceport America for its eventual operational launches, which would be "able to support dozens of launches per day," Yaney told CNBC.

The company also declined to tell CNBC much about its customer base, although SpinLaunch did sign a "launch prototype contract" in 2019 with the Department of Defense.

Its $35 million fundraising round in January 2020 included the investors Airbus Ventures, GV, KPCB, Catapult Ventures, Lauder Partners, John Doerr and Byers Family. Back then, SpinLaunch was expecting to do its first operational flight in 2022.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.