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 (opens in new tab) the successful launch test. You can see footage of the flight here (opens in new tab).
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 (opens in new tab) Tuesday (Nov. 9). "We had to prove to ourselves that we could actually pull this off."
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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 (opens in new tab), 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 (opens in new tab), 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 (opens in new tab).
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.
Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.