Company with new tech exploring sites to launch satellites

A California company is looking at Hawaii Island as a potential site for launching small satellites into orbit.

And its CEO claims it can do it without rockets.

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“We use a concept that allows for electricity to be used, as opposed to rocket propulsion in order to achieve orbit,” said Jonathan Yaney of SpinLaunch Inc.

Yaney declined to explain how the technology is supposed to work because the company is pursuing patents and he doesn’t want to tip off competitors. But the name does give a hint.

State Sen. Glenn Wakai, D-Oahu, visited the company’s office in Sunnyvale, Calif., last October and described the launch mechanism under development as a centrifuge. He said he saw a “very small scale version of it.”

“It’s like a big water tank with an arm on the end,” Wakai said. “The arm is like the rocket. It spins up to 5,000 miles per hour and launches out of a chute into space.”

While SpinLaunch hasn’t put anything into orbit, and the concept has yet to be proven, Wakai said he thinks it is “very doable.”

He introduced a bill to authorize $25 million in special purpose revenue bonds to help the company set up a launch site on the island. The bonds are sold to private investors who provide the funding in exchange for tax-exempt interest payments.

The legislation, which has a companion bill in the House, describes the technology as an “electrically powered, kinetic launch system.” It says it would reduce the cost for accessing space and use “abundant, infinite, renewable energy resources — solar energy and regenerative braking — to provide electrical loading.”

On the economic side, the bill says the facility would generate millions of dollars in construction and create long-term technical jobs.

Yaney said the satellites would be about the size of a microwave. Low-orbit small satellites could be used to provide internet access anywhere in the world.

He said their concept would be cheaper and far less polluting than rockets. Small rockets would be needed to position the satellite once in orbit.

Yaney said SpinLaunch is looking at five potential sites around the world. Hawaii Island is on the list because it’s relatively close to the equator and there isn’t too much competing air traffic.

As for the timeline, he said they are hoping to be ready for launch in 2021.

Yaney said the “launch vehicle” is about 20 feet long. He described the noise as being similar to an aircraft taking off.

Yaney said a launch facility would take up about 8 acres, though they would be looking for a couple thousand acres of land. The launch site could attract other companies, he said.

“The benefit would be about a couple billion dollars in economic development in high-tech science and technology,” Yaney said. “This will attract multiple satellite companies.”

On the regulatory side, such a facility would require Federal Aviation Administration approval, he said. Yaney said the technology is “absolutely not” dangerous.

Bill Walter, president of Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, said it sounds like an interesting idea but the technology needs to prove itself.

“It’s going to require more studies than most because it’s a totally different system,” he said.

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“If something goes wrong, where does the thing spin to? We’re not talking about Frisbees here.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.