NASA Testing 5,000 MPH Space Slingshot SpinLaunch: Here's How It Works

NASA has agreed to test a new way of getting things into space—by spinning them really fast and throwing them straight up from the ground.

The launch method might sound cartoonish, but it is a very real concept being developed by California tech company SpinLaunch.

Last week, SpinLaunch announced it had signed a deal with NASA to launch a payload with its suborbital system later this year, as a test for potential future commercial launches.

NASA VAB
A photo shows NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in February, 2008. The space agency has signed a deal with launch technology company SpinLaunch. Mark Wilson/Getty

SpinLaunch's launch method will eventually work like this: First, a payload such as a satellite is attached to the end of a large, carbon fiber arm that is placed inside of a large circular vacuum chamber. The arm then starts spinning, powered by an electric motor placed at the center of the chamber.

The payload at the end of the arm is accelerated faster and faster, past the speed of sound and onwards up to 5,000 miles per hour.

Then, at exactly the right time, the payload is released from the spinning arm so that it fires straight upwards and out of the vacuum chamber via a vertical exit tube.

Due to its initial high velocity, the payload tears through the Earth's thick lower atmosphere until it gets above the stratosphere; the part of Earth's atmosphere that extends to 31 miles high.

At that point, a rocket engine will fire that will give the payload an extra boost that inserts it into its desired orbit around the Earth. SpinLaunch says this launch method can eliminate more than 70 percent of the fuel and structures required by "a typical rocket."

Founded in 2014, SpinLaunch completed its first test flight in October 2021 and has carried out more since then, accelerating payloads to more than 1,000 miles per hour at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

There are two launch methods in the works—a smaller, suborbital launcher that is currently in testing, and the full-size orbital launcher described above that is expected to enter testing in 2025.

There are some clear hurdles that SpinLaunch will have to overcome with its approach to launching things into space. The first is designing payloads to deal with the extreme stress of being rotated in a tight circle at up to 5,000 miles per hour; the sudden impact and heat resistance the payloads will meet when they exit the vacuum chamber, and the sonic boom they will create when they exit the vacuum chamber.

SpinLaunch says its launch vehicle is designed to survive the temporary high temperatures it will experience and that sonic booms created at launch are no worse than those created during lift-off of a traditional rocket.

Jonathan Yaney, founder and CEO of SpinLaunch, said in a press release: "We look forward to announcing more partners and customers soon, and greatly appreciate NASA's continued interest and support in SpinLaunch."