Ever Wanted to Shoot Something Into Space? Here’s Your Chance
Starfire Scientific wants your help blasting stuff into orbit, cheaply
Richard Graf wants you—yes, you—to have the opportunity to send something into orbit.
Using a really big gun.
Graf, the president of Canadian start-up Starfire Scientific, describes his Starfire Space Cannon as a “multi-chamber artillery piece.”
Starfire is using crowd-funding Website Kickstarter to pay for Space Cannon’s first launches, which Graf says are the culmination of a four-year development. The Ontario firm is asking for 65,000 Canadian dollars.
Launching something into space using a cannon might seem an unlikely choice. A traditional gun design, where a single large explosion launches a projectile, would most likely damage a sensitive payload.
Graf specifically designed Space Cannon to solve this problem. The multi-chamber layout channels a series of small explosions, gradually building up to the same power that would normally result from a single large blast.
In essence, Space Cannon duplicates the same graduated propulsion process that occurs with a multi-stage rocket launch. This reduces stress on the projectile while still giving it enough juice to fly into space.
The Kickstarter page asks the next obvious question. “Why a big cannon instead of a rocket?” The simple answer is that rockets are expensive and require expensive infrastructure to launch them.
SpaceX, an up-and-coming commercial launch company, conducted a low-cost satellite launch in December. It was considered cheap at approximately $60 million.
By comparison, Graf is hoping for just C$65,000 to fund Starfire’s two test phases. Phase two will include no fewer than four sub-orbital launches.
This massive cost reduction is possible because Space Cannon has to generate just enough power to shoot whatever the payload is, albeit “wrapped in an aerodynamic shell.”
Rockets, many parts of which are single-use, have to carry their own mass into the sky, making them inefficient. Space Cannon, which is completely reusable, never leaves the ground.
Space Cannon comes mounted on a trailer that fits into a standard shipping container. This means it can be fired from almost any suitable location and does not need pricey, specialized facilities.
To be fair, research into long-range launchers like this has been going on for more than 60 years. Not all of this work has been limited to peaceful space exploration, either.
The Germans had plans to build batteries of the orbital launchers to attack European cities as the Allies advanced. The least well-known of Hitler’s “vengeance weapons,” the Space Cannon-style V-3 reportedly fired only once.
The U.S. Army captured V-3 components and evaluated them at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland in the late 1940s. In the 1960s, the U.S. and Canada worked together on the concept as part of the High-Altitude Research Program or HARP.
Publicly, HARP was meant for peaceful applications in space. Quietly however, the U.S. was also interested in military applications, like launching nuclear warheads or shooting down incoming missiles.
Funding for HARP eventually dried up. The Canadians became increasingly concerned about the program’s military dimensions. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s focus was on Vietnam.
One of the project’s most vocal supporters, Gerald Bull, wanted to keep working on the concept. What followed was like something out of a spy movie.
Bull, a Canadian, eventually became involved in the development of traditional artillery and the arms trade. He reportedly worked with the Central Intelligence Agency and came under investigation for flaunting international arms embargoes.
In 1988, he began working with Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq on a new super gun. Details are still murky regarding the exact purpose of the Babylon Gun.
Work on the project came to an abrupt halt in 1990 when Bull was assassinated. It’s widely believed that the Israelis killed Bull to prevent the Iraqis from finishing the Babylon Gun and using it to launch Weapons of Mass Destruction.
After Bull’s death, European authorities seized parts apparently destined for the super gun. After the Gulf War in 1991, the U.N. oversaw the destruction of the components that had made it to Iraq.
Graf admits he first became interested in the space gun concept after reading Bull’s obituary. Graf is also quick to point out that Bull is just one of many people who were involved in HARP and other similar projects. He says that Charles Murphy, Bull’s American counterpart on the project, is equally significant.
Graf says that from what he can tell about the Babylon Gun from his own research, it didn’t appear to be “any sort of leap in technology.” “There is only so much performance that you can squeeze out of a cannon when you are using a single propellant charge,” Graf explains.
Starfire may offer that leap in technology—and do it on the cheap. Graf hopes that his multi-charge design will allow him to “provide services that are affordable to individuals or even a high school class.”
So kick in a few bucks to finish Space Cannon. And start thinking about what you’d like to send into orbit.
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