Slinging into Space

Are rockets déclassé when it comes to launching stuff into space?

Well, not really. Nothing can quite compare to the countdown to launch and the rumble as the rocket lifts off from the pad.

But in the future, rockets might not be the only way of lifting things into the Clarke Orbit and beyond. 


We’ve written before about the space elevator; the picture above depicts another method being explored by scientists and engineers — a giant slingshot:

What if we could throw something so hard, it would wind up in space? At NASA’s behest, Ed Schmidt and Mark Bundy of the Army Research Lab are looking at ways of firing projectiles into orbit.

The notion has a very long pedigree. Back in 1687 when Isaac Newton first came up with the theory of gravity he also introduced the concept of an orbital cannon which could fire a cannonball so fast that it would never come down. The first serious attempt to shoot into space was the High Altitude Research Program (HARP) carried out in the US in the 60’s…. HARP used a modified 16-inch naval gun to loft projectiles to the incredible altitude of 112 miles before being cancelled in 1967.

The ARL study looks at more sophisticated approaches than your basic cannon, including a blast wave accelerator, and electro-magnetic rail gun, and an EM coil gun. But the wildest idea may be the Slingatron: a giant, hypervelocity, rapid-fire slingshot. The machine would spin a projectile faster and faster through a spiral-shaped tube, building up increasing amounts of centripetal force along the way – just like a discus-thrower, spinning himself around before a toss, or like a latter-day King David, winding up his weapon before he whacks Goliath.

Personally, we think slingshots are dangerous– you could poke out your brother’s eye, as Mom used to warn– but cannons look pretty cool:


And engineers for a relaunched HARP project could easily be found in the autumn in Montana, at the Annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin.

Then again, slingin’ a punkin would be pretty cool, too. 


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