Space cannon to shoot payloads into orbit (w/ Video)

Jan 18, 2010 by Lin Edwards report
Space gun. Image credit: John Hunter

(PhysOrg.com) -- A physicist has proposed using a 1.1 km (3,600 ft) cannon to deliver cargo into orbit, and says the cost would be around $250 per pound, a massive saving on the $5,000 per pound ($11,000 per kg) it currently costs to make deliveries using a rocket.

John Hunter, from the company Quicklaunch, which was set up by himself and two other scientists, bases its plans on previous work they carried out at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. In 1992 Hunter and his colleagues fired a 130 m (425 ft) cannon built to test launch hypersonic engines. Its piston, driven by methane, compressed that expanded up the barrel of the over-sized gun to shoot the .

The Quicklaunch design has replaced the piston with a combustion system burning in a heat exchanger inside a chamber of hydrogen gas. The combustion system heats the hydrogen to 1,430˚C (2,600˚F), which increases the gas pressure by 500%. An operator then opens a valve to allow the hot, pressurized hydrogen into the 1100-meter-long barrel of the gun, where it instantly expands, shooting the projectile out and into space. As soon as the payload has left, an iris at the end of the barrel closes to capture the hydrogen for re-use. Once the projectile is launched, a small rocket engine then boosts the payload into a low-Earth orbit.

Hunter calculates the pressure would be sufficient to launch a 450 kg payload at six kilometers per second (13,000 mph). The process would produce 5,000 Gs, and so would only be suitable for rugged payloads such as strengthened satellites and rocket fuel. Hunter said the system could not be used as a people-launcher because a person shot out of the cannon "would probably get compressed to half their size," causing instant death.

Hunter said the heat generated would be short-lived, with the projectile clearing the atmosphere in under 100 seconds. He also said the projectiles may need to be designed so that outer layers could burn off.

Hunter's proposal is to operate the "Quicklauncher" from the ocean near the equator, where the Earth's faster rotation will help launch payloads into space. The cannon would float, with 490 m (1,600 ft) of it below the surface, where it would be stabilized by ballast. Operators would be able to swivel it as required to deliver the payload into different orbits.

Hunter plans to test a 3 meter prototype in a water tank in February, and a full-size cannon could be built within seven years, if Quicklaunch can raise the required $500 million. While this is a sizeable upfront cost, the potential savings in the long term are substantial, because the cannon is reusable. Its use would significantly reduce the cost of keeping the International Space Station in orbit.

The proposal was outlined in October in Boston, U.S., at the Space Investment Summit.

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Explore further: DNA survives critical entry into Earth's atmosphere

More information: -- Space Investment Summit: spaceinvestmentsummit.com/

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User comments : 37

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Birger
3.8 / 5 (10) Jan 18, 2010
This seems like an improvement of the "Jules Verne" gun proposed to be built in Alaska in the late eighties. I have two concerns: 1.If the missile is launched at a steep angle -a necessity to keep air drag low- the vector will be wrong for a circular low Earth orbit. Instead, the missile will go almost straight up, and then almost straight down, so will the missile use a "lifting body" to alter its trajectory?. 2.The acoustic bang will make wildlife deaf within a wide radius, both marine life and birds. Furthermore the ambient infrasound over the seas is assumed to help birds navigate, supplementing the magneitic fields. - What will be the effect on migrating birds by frequent "supergun" firings?
RayCherry
3.3 / 5 (3) Jan 18, 2010
I wonder how many modern satellites would survive this kind of launch, and how much 'protective launch casing' will become space junk. If the system can ensure the cases will be released while the projectile is within Earth Gravity, and the casing would harmlessly burn up on re-entry, then it could launch 'delivery robots' with supplies to Earth orbitting missions. But this launch method restricts the kind of materials that can be delivered much further than current methods.

Effects of marine sound and gas pollution could outway the cost benefit. Hiding the device way out in the ocean makes monitoring of potential harmful effects much more difficult.
theknifeman
Jan 18, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
oldstudent
1 / 5 (1) Jan 18, 2010
Cost saving per kg would be $11023, wouldn't it?
croghan26
4.2 / 5 (5) Jan 18, 2010
A Canadian, Gerald Bull, was doing quite well designing a monster gun that could be used for placing objects inot space .. until the Mossad up and killed him.

http://en.wikiped...ald_Bull
Bob_Kob
3 / 5 (2) Jan 18, 2010
Gerald bull was a genius, too bad his ideas were never completed.
Hemo_jr
4.5 / 5 (2) Jan 18, 2010
Presumably the ocean location is to absorb recoil, however, this location is deep at the bottom of the atmosphere. Alternatively, the use of a deep lake in the Andes (for example) may be able to eliminate travel through the thickest part of the atmosphere. The lake might have to be dredged (a lot) or artificial. However, if the costs are not too prohibitive, it might be a useful modification to the idea.
El_Nose
5 / 5 (4) Jan 18, 2010
we have supersonic jets, and space shuttles that fly all the time and creating a sonic boom and the birds seem to be doing fine.
LariAnn
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 18, 2010
Gerald Bull's proposed supergun was not projected to be nearly as long as the space cannon described in this article. After studying Bull's work, I'm confident that he could have done with his supergun years ago what is presented in this article, and for less cost!
croghan26
5 / 5 (3) Jan 18, 2010
I believe that Bull's gun work, funded in part by the Canadian government, took place in the near arctic.

It was intended as a space program on the cheap - but was defunded after initial successes. His research was into balistics - not really space.

He saw an opportunity for more funding from Saddam in Iraq and went there. I know of no evidence that he was especially political - he just went where he could get his ideas funded.
mertzj
2.5 / 5 (4) Jan 18, 2010
we have supersonic jets, and space shuttles that fly all the time and creating a sonic boom and the birds seem to be doing fine.


And you think this gun is going to be as quiet as a sonic boom?
joefarah
1.3 / 5 (6) Jan 18, 2010
Hydrogen gas would burn from the friction - none of the gas would be recovered and it would be dangerous within the tube during this fire.

5000 Gs is a lot. Rocket/payload design would be prohibitively expensive. Probably cheaper to mine fuel from the moon and ship it to LEO.

Maintaining the linearity of the tube would be an even bigger challange. One bump/curve and the payload will destroy it. This is a hypothetical dream.
barakn
3 / 5 (3) Jan 18, 2010
@Hemo_jr, the location in water is to allow the rotation of the gun in different compass directions, and possibly it's angle of inclination as well, recoil probably being an afterthought. I like the Andean lake idea though. Lake Titicaca, by far the largest Andean lake, has a maximum depth of 284 m. At an angle of 30 degrees the bottom of the gun would be at 245 m. The lakes altitude of 3812 m is ideal, but it is a bit too south at ~16 degrees latitude.
Chef
not rated yet Jan 18, 2010
I wonder what the acoustic shock wave would be in the water. Given sound travels much faster in water, what damage would be done to the marine life (i.e., whales or dolphins) that uses sound for navigation? It is already known that when a submarine uses its "Ping" it can cause temporary paralysis in certain marine life.
otto1923
5 / 5 (1) Jan 18, 2010
This is not unlike Saddams supergun:
http://en.wikiped..._Babylon
-for possibly launching satellites and droping them on Israel-
@joe
"Hydrogen gas would burn from the friction"
-not without O2
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (2) Jan 18, 2010
I wonder what the acoustic shock wave would be in the water.

Depends on how you build it. If it were to be built with an outer shell and then the intervening space 'filled' with a vacuum there would not be much of a shock wave (only where supporting struts were to connect the shells would you have any transmission of soundwaves - and even that could be reduced by damper elements).

Once the proectile is in the air one can expect a fair amount of noise which would carry quite a distance. But I think maritime life could live with a bang every few weeks.

Hydrogen gas would burn from the friction - none of the gas would be recovered and it would be dangerous within the tube during this fire.

From what I see of other designs there would probably be individual hydrogen chambers parallel to the bore which would fire in sequence as the projectile passes by.

Certainly would pose a challenge for the robustness of the payload, though.
flaredone
2 / 5 (1) Jan 18, 2010
I cannot imagine, how to catch such missile at orbit. It's rather weapon, then anything else.
malapropism
2 / 5 (2) Jan 18, 2010
Can anyone explain why they plan to use hydrogen and not some inert, denser and cheaper gas such as nitrogen? Since they aren't combusting the gas but only expanding it by heating, it just doesn't seem necessary, or perhaps even sensible, to use hydrogen. There might be some good reason for this though?
Wayne1561
Jan 18, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
ThomasS
not rated yet Jan 19, 2010
Alternatively, the use of a deep lake in the Andes (for example) may be able to eliminate travel through the thickest part of the atmosphere. The lake might have to be dredged (a lot) or artificial. However, if the costs are not too prohibitive, it might be a useful modification to the idea.


That actually sounds great. Wonder what the trade-off of a high-up lake versus a non-equator location looks like.
warmer
1 / 5 (2) Jan 19, 2010
Judging by the picture, and the fact that you can rotate this gun for aiming, makes me assume that it would be highly inaccurate if there are any surface turbulence. A degree off at that speed and distance translates to a big deal in orbit.

It doesn't appear to be connected to the ocean floor.

Without a stable mount or some kind of guide rigging, it's going to move simply being in the waves let alone firing it.
KhanneaSuntzu
1 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2010
How about making this device ten times as long, substantially lighter, propell by means of magnetic coil acceleration and suspend it from a long sequence of low to high altitude balloons. At a 45 degree incline, the high end would reach altitudes of twenty miles, and this terminus would bypass most of the atmospheric drag. So if you accelerated a payload to that altitude, launch it with something in the order of 5 G (which humans can handle) I am fairly sure you could save on launch costs each step of the way. Adding more helium balloons would allow you to get an even higher inserting point, and the device could operate at evert stage using surface produced electricity.
CreepyD
not rated yet Jan 19, 2010
Wouldn't a system that works similar to maglev be a better alternative than an explosive?
Or would it just not have enough power to push something fast enough, no matter how long the barrel?
I'm thinking more like a rail gun.
LKD
not rated yet Jan 19, 2010
If this works, this would do wonders to increase access to space. And possibly ship up the basics for a larger ISS or moon base that is usable for more than cramped experiments.

But why does it need to be in water? Why can't you just dig a hole, fill it with water and use that instead of a sea base that will be under pummeling by currents and corrosion by salt water? I wish there was more information on this.
LuckyBrandon
not rated yet Jan 19, 2010
I like the lake idea...and much further up than sea level I would think would make it a tad easier...a deep lake in the mountains for instance...
El_Nose
4 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2010
There are very very few deep lakes in mountains -- they are so rare that they all have resorts

Lake Tahoe in Nevada in the US comes to mind
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2010
Judging by the picture, and the fact that you can rotate this gun for aiming, makes me assume that it would be highly inaccurate if there are any surface turbulence.

If the payload has even minimal guidance then this is no problem (The mass of the entire system would render it pretty immune to wave motion. Look at the picture. there's an entire floating platform there to stabilize it. Even in extremely high winds such platforms barely move.

There are very very few deep lakes in mountains -- they are so rare that they all have resorts

I'd suppose that this type of setup will be kilometers long (which is beyond the depth of any conveniently located lake). Also there are very few deep lakes along the equator which would be the best place to put this thing.

How about making this device ten times as long, substantially lighter, propell by means of magnetic coil acceleration and suspend it from a long sequence of low to high altitude balloons.

Two words: Too heavy.
PeterROwen
not rated yet Jan 19, 2010
I'd really like to see the experimental work on this project. High g's (10 times that of a bullet in a rifle) are a no-no for most materials, causing distortion, distention, brittle fracture, embrittlement of ceramics, softening of metals, etc., to say nothing of the barrell and the surrounding sea-water.
jsa09
not rated yet Jan 19, 2010
There were proposals to build a large magnetic space equipment launcher west of Sydney Australia about 30 years ago. The product fell on its head with lack of funding.

I seems that compressed gas launching may not be as powerful as magnetic field launching. When the Sydney project was conceived the idea was to launch the payload into orbit and the payload would then trigger its own motor to complete the maneuver. I am not sure how to protect the internal workings of the payload from the magnetic launch itself but I presume that a gas powered high G launch would be easier to shield than a magnetic High G launch.
StarDust21
not rated yet Jan 20, 2010
Guys I'm confused as to how pressurized gas could accelerate a 450kg load to at 5000Gs...or did I miss something major?
zevkirsh
1 / 5 (2) Jan 20, 2010
this article misses a lot of history. i've read about this stuff for years. it's fit for launching water into outerspace for resupply purposes only. and even then, it seems improbably extreme. and doing it from the ocean is absurdistan. i don't care if this guy is a professor or not. any large machine situated in the ocean is going to break. unless they're collection black gold with it, the project will be a failure. that this guy is selling this project being built in THE OCEAN as an 'investment' shows he's a scam artist or delusion or just a fool.
otto1923
not rated yet Jan 20, 2010
large machine situated in the ocean is going to break
Like oil rigs or submarines?
Or would it just not have enough power to push something fast enough
Without a stable mount or some kind of guide rigging, it's going to move simply being in the waves let alone firing it.
Man, you guys have not much faith in engineers do ya?
StarDust21
not rated yet Jan 20, 2010
large machine situated in the ocean is going to break
Like oil rigs or submarines?
Or would it just not have enough power to push something fast enough
Without a stable mount or some kind of guide rigging, it's going to move simply being in the waves let alone firing it.
Man, you guys have not much faith in engineers do ya?


I have faith, but dude they are talking of propelling a car to 6 km/s with PRESSURIZED GAS. I would love to have more detail cause this seems a little absurd to me.
otto1923
not rated yet Jan 20, 2010
I have faith, but dude they are talking of propelling a car to 6 km/s with PRESSURIZED GAS.
16 inch guns on any battleship fire car-sized shells, and thats 100 year-old technology. Us humans are so damn capable, and the universe seems to want to allow us to do just about anything. Why is that? Why do matter and energy have so much variety and potential for us to use? We will one day be moving stars, engineering their systems.

Look into rail guns and the kind of forces they generate-
Truth
not rated yet Jan 22, 2010
Didn't Wiley Coyote come up with a similar idea? No, really, I mean it didn't quite work out too good for him either...I'm just saying...
M_N
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 23, 2010
Can anyone explain why they plan to use hydrogen and not some inert, denser and cheaper gas such as nitrogen? Since they aren't combusting the gas but only expanding it by heating, it just doesn't seem necessary, or perhaps even sensible, to use hydrogen. There might be some good reason for this though?


The reason is that the speed of sound in hydrogen is much higher than for denser gases at the same pressure. The maximum speed of a projectile in a gun is limited to the speed of sound in the compressed gas that is propelling it. Some "air cannon" hobbyists use helium or hydrogen gas in their cannons for the same reason.
Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet Jan 24, 2010
I watched the whole video presentation and he gives amazing insights and technical explanation why rail guns are bad and hydrogen is good.

This is amazing, and I agree with him about NASA. IT's ridiculous NASA has been around for 4 decades and hasn't done this yet...
Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet Jan 24, 2010
large machine situated in the ocean is going to break
Like oil rigs or submarines?
Or would it just not have enough power to push something fast enough
Without a stable mount or some kind of guide rigging, it's going to move simply being in the waves let alone firing it.
Man, you guys have not much faith in engineers do ya?


I have faith, but dude they are talking of propelling a car to 6 km/s with PRESSURIZED GAS. I would love to have more detail cause this seems a little absurd to me.


Did you watch the video?

This guy is giving a conference to scientists and potential investors, and he says they know they'll break the existing record(which he holds,) within 2 or 3 test shots...

External engine just makes so much sense, and he explains why rail guns don't work as well as advertised.
antialias
5 / 5 (1) Jan 25, 2010
Watched the video. Very interesting.
I'm not sure I agree on the g-hardening issue. Sure, most electronics components are insensitive to high g-forces, but the craft they are proposing will have to feature some moving parts (attitude control at the very least). This may be a bit of a design challenge. Certainly not impossible but I think he downplays that part a bit.

Also I'd like to see some tests with liquid as part of the payload (since he is talking about liquid fuel for the final stage of the projectile). Compressibility/shockwave issues will have to be adressed.

Definitely something worth trying. Especially at the low price the initial two development stages would cost.

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