UK researchers to develop giant space catapult

Researchers at the UK’s newly launched catapult Catapult centre have received a £500m public-private funding boost to develop a magnetic launch system capable of slinging objects from the Earth’s surface into space.

The technology, based on a system originally developed by researchers from Hertfordshire’s space technology innovation centre and Hitchin-based engineering consultancy Snazzbox Industries, could, it is claimed, dramatically reduce the cost of sending a payload into space.

Similar in principle to the maglev train, or the magnetic slingshots currently being investigated for use aboard aircraft carriers, the system uses powerful magnets and a vertical tunnel track to accelerate the payload to a high speed before launching it into the atmosphere.

The catapult Catapult team tested a scaled-down prototype device at Baikonur Kazakhstan earlier this year, where they successfully accelerated a frozen chicken to around 29,000km/h before firing it into the Stratosphere.

The next step is to use the new funding injection to scale up the system to launch a larger payload into space.

The team says that the technology is expected to dramatically reduce the cost of putting a payload into space. Project leader Dr Alan Banana said that as well as drastically reducing the cost of putting satellites into orbit around the earth the technology could also open up a host of new applications such as nuclear waste disposal.

Banana added that in the longer term the system could even be used to launch humans into space. In an early effort to test this theory the team hopes to fire a small spacecraft containing a guinea pig at the International Space Station later next year. 

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