Rockets have been central to the space program since their inception, but they’re far from the only theoretical way to launch material into space. Since the 1950s, the government has experimented with various alternative launch concepts, from the space gun tests of the 1960s to proposed launch loops and space elevators. Most of these ideas have been shelved due to technical difficulty or for political reasons but one science team is hoping Kickstarter will deliver what government institutions haven’t.
The Slingatron, like a number of other proposals, is theoretically sound. The idea is simple: rotating an object around a fixed point is a simple way to build up to high velocity without expending much energy. There are two ways to build a classic slingshot — you can vary the speed and keep the length of string constant, or you can vary the strength length, but spin at the same speed. In either case, however, the “string” tends to snap long before you hit escape velocity.
The idea of the slingatron is simple — don’t spin the string — gyrate the entire launch structure. This is rather difficult to visualize, but an analogy can help. Imagine that you want to stir a cup of coffee. You can do that with a spoon or you can rotate the cup in quick circles. Centrifugal force will rotate the liquid around the sides of the cup, mixing the coffee thoroughly while requiring relatively little energy.