Engineering Question #2936

David Howard, a male from UK asks on September 15, 2005,

Can you tell me whether it would be possible to launch a spacecraft into orbit using a giant catapult? I can see no reason why not. Obviously any life form would instantly turn to mush under the immense g force, but for satellites I'm sure it would be possible, - the picture in my head is a 1 mile deep catapult with computer controlled tension, maybe it would be possible to use a natural hole like the grand canyon. Anyway... in theory would it work?

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The answer

John Jones answered on September 15, 2005

The problem with this scheme is atmospheric friction. When you launch with a catapult, the spacecraft is going fastest where the atmosphere is thickest. (This is just the opposite of what happens with a rocket launch.) To maintain a low earth orbit at an altitude of 185 km, a spacecraft would need to be travelling at 7.79 km/s; to have this velocity at 185 km, it would need to start off with a velocity of at least 9.69 km/s at sea level -- that's about 35,000 km/h, or about 35 times the speed of sound. It would therefore experience intense frictional heating -- much worse than the space shuttle experiences on re-entry. The outer surface of the spacecraft would become incandescent, like a meteor.

To get round this problem, you might consider launching the spacecraft inside a tube from which all the air has been removed, with the tube going up the side of a high mountain. Designing the top end of the tube so that the spacecraft could get out, but air couldn't get in, would be a challenge.

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