All space projects get into orbit pretty much the same way by burning lots of rocket fuel, a spaceship powers itself past the sky. But what if there was a different approach? 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 60s (not to be confused with HAARP High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program so beloved of the tinfoil hat brigade). 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.Schmidt and Bundy are cautiously positive about Slingatron and the other launch concepts:
- Achieving an 8 km/s muzzle velocity did not violate any laws of physics- All had serious engineering and materials issues- Significant research is required- Facilitization costs would be high- All are high riskSo its a big project which will take some development, but the benefits would be phenomenal. If we can spend $7 billion+ on an airborne laser which is frankly unimpressive, why not put a billion into each of these concepts - then use the rest to build whichever looks best?An orbital launcher would bring the cost of putting a payload into orbit from around $10,000 a pound to a few hundred dollars. (The G-forces are so huge, astronauts still have to go up the hard way). The main problem as far as I can see would be fights breaking out in the queue to use it. [OK, not exactly. But Hambling's on a roll here. Let him go with it. -- ed.] NASA wants it to send up components of the ISS or future lunar of Mars missions. Send up the pieces and it could all be assembled in Earth orbit before moving on go where no man has gone before. Or they could use it as a first-stage, putting rockets into orbit which could then boost small probes to the rest of the solar system.Or it could be used to put up new nano-satellites by the score, at short notice and without the need for scarce and expensive rockets.But for the Pentagon it could be a candidate for the ideal Global Strike tool: capable delivering a one-ton bunker-busting tungsten supercavitating penetrator at orbital speed. [Not that we're encouraging this sort of thing.] Thats real Shock & Awe, which could arrive anywhere in the world with no warning before bombers could get off the runway. (Anyone remember Saddam Husseins Project Babylon Supergun , or the Nazis V3 plans?)Alternatively, an aeroballistic pod could be launched which would break open at high altitude to release a dozen Dominators or similar craft to find and attack precision targets, catching fleeing terrorists in less time than it takes to get a Predator into the area.Then again, the anti-satellite people might want to have a go too. [Not that we're looking to encourage them, either.] It would make a neat anti-aircraft gun, firing small guided projectiles, and might offer some interesting options for kinetic ballistic missile defense.Maybe SOCOM might want a look for about instant re-supply anywhere, for when it absolutely, positively has to be there within the hour, regardless of weather conditions?If you take a look at my book Weapons Grade, youll find a chapter with an unusual history of the Space Race. It shows how the space program for both East and West originated with the German military V-2 program, and progressed on the back of post-war ballistic missile programs. The launchers on both sides were modified versions of rockets originally designed to carry warheads. The idea of space travel had been around for years, but it took military interest to make it happen.We may now again be in a situation where the next major breakthrough in space technology is just waiting for the military to take the lead again.The possibilities are endlessbut, I think I hear Monsieur Vernes lawyers at the door, something about stealing his idea of going From The Earth To The Moon-- David Hambling UPDATE 05/10/06 12:23PM: Not only is physicist a fan of the Slingatron, but, apparently, Google co-founder Larry Page is, too.