Ben Bova: The 'cannonization' of launches to space

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In his 1865 novel “From the Earth to the Moon,” Jules Verne sent his explorers to the moon by firing them from a gigantic cannon from the west coast of Florida.

He overlooked a few details, such as the fact that the acceleration of his cannonball-spaceship would have crushed the very fragile human passengers inside it, and the spacecraft itself would probably have burned to a cinder as it flew through the atmosphere.

Real space journeys are done with rockets, which leave the ground slowly, then accelerate steadily until their propellants are used up.

Rockets are very inefficient, though, and space travel is expensive. It costs upwards of $10,000 per pound to launch payloads into orbit around the Earth.

A private firm called Quicklaunch Inc., however, is developing a high-tech cannon that will — company officials believe — launch small, unmanned spacecraft into orbit for a few hundred dollars per pound, rather than the $10,000 per pound, or more, that rockets cost. Shades of Jules Verne!

This is no fly-by-night idea. (Pardon the pun.) Quicklaunch’s personnel have been working on high-velocity gas-driven cannons for space launches for more than 30 years. One of the company’s founders is John W. Hunter, who has worked on this daring technology with the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

There is a large and growing market for launching satellites that weigh a metric ton or less. Hunter and his cohorts are offering a technology that can bring down the costs of launching satellites that weigh a ton or less by a factor of a hundred.

There are three basic problems with the idea of launching satellites from a cannon. One, you have to achieve a muzzle velocity high enough to give the satellite the speed it needs to attain orbit. That means the payload has to leave the cannon’s mouth traveling roughly five miles per second.

Which brings up the second problem. The payload would burn up like a meteor as it roars through the lowest, densest layers of the atmosphere. And the third problem is that the cannon’s firing delivers an enormous jolt to the payload, some 10,000 times the force of normal Earth gravity. For comparison, NASA’s space shuttle puts only a 3-g strain on the people and cargo it launches.

Firing people from a space gun is out of the question. But Hunter and his team maintain that it’s perfectly feasible to harden unmanned satellites so that they can stand the high g load of a cannon launch.

The payload package can be insulated against the friction heat generated on launch, much as returning spacecraft are protected by heat shields as they re-enter the atmosphere.

The payload package would also have to carry small steering rockets to move it into the desired orbital path after it’s reached orbital altitude.

All this is well within our technological grasp, Hunter insists.

Hunter and his team worked on project HARP (High Altitude Research Project) and its successor, SHARP (Super High Altitude Research Project).

At one time he and his colleagues were developing a space gun for the Strategic Defense Initiative, the “Star Wars” system to defend against attack by nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

The SDI concept called for stationing hundreds of defensive satellites in orbit, in a plan dubbed “Brilliant Pebbles.” With the demise of the Soviet Union, though, the threat of a massive nuclear attack on the American homeland lessened and SDI was quietly shelved — together with the launch cannon idea.

But Hunter and his colleagues pursued the gas-cannon idea despite Washington’s dwindling interest. Now they have formed a private company, Quicklaunch, to develop a space-launching cannon for university and industrial customers. Quicklaunch plans to build such a facility on Adak Island, in Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain.

If they succeed, they could revolutionize the business of launching unmanned satellites. Communications satellite launches are already a multibillion-dollar business, worldwide. A company that can reduce launch costs by a factor of a hundred could quickly acquire a major share of that market. And others.

The name that Hunter and company give to their gun design is the JVL series. JVL stands, of course, for Jules Verne Launcher.

Bova, a Naples resident, is the author of more than 120 books, including “The Return,” his latest futuristic novel. Bova’s web site address is www.benbova.com

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