Image: Starfire Scientific Inc.
In just the last decade, our link to outer space has been transformed. The old Space Shuttle launch equipment is up for sale, Americans are riding in Soviet-designed Soyuz capsules to and from the ISS, mini satellites are being launched in Virginia. It seems like the single constant is that getting something or someone into space is still eye-poppingly expensive—some $5,000 per pound for deliveries, and a whopping $60 million to get a person up via Soyuz. It’s this astronomical expense that one Canadian man is taking aim at with his 45-foot, home-built space cannon.
A self-described space enthusiast and inventor, Richard Graf is the founder, head, and so far only member of Starfire Scientific Inc., an organization “dedicated to providing low cost access to space for everyone.” Graf’s plan for putting stuff into orbit on the cheap is to substitute the old rocket launch model with a gun.
“In order to get into space these days, you have to use a rocket, and in order for a rocket to get into space it has to be big,” Graf explains on the Starfire Space Cannon Kickstarter page. “A rocket is not just carrying its payload, it has to carry its all of its fuel, all of the tanks for that fuel, its engine—it’s heavy and heavy is expensive. A gun launcher in the other hand is an engine that stays on the ground.”
As he’s explaining this in the video, he’s standing in front of the Starfire Cannon prototype, 45 feet of pipe on a the back of truck rig in front of a barn outside of Calgary. It looks sort of like a carnival ride that’s mostly been scrapped for parts, but when the Starfire Space Cannon fires—straight ahead into a mound of snow and dirt, following a countdown of “3 2 1 Starfire!”—the whole rig leaps with the recoil, and the sound of the blast reverberates through the snowy woods.
Graf isn’t the only one working on a space cannon. In 2010 John Hunter, a physicist, proposed building a floating space cannon once he gets the necessary $500 million to do so. Graf, on the other, hand only wants $65,000 (Canadian) from a Kickstarter that launched on February 1.
Naturally I emailed Graf right away, because, c’mon, space gun! My main question was simple: Who builds a gigantic cannon in the woods?
“I have had an interesting life so far and my background includes serving as a gunsmith in the Canadian military and I have a degree in robotics,” he told me.
As to the obvious legal question, Graf told me that “legally this launcher is classified as a non-restricted firearm in Canada, same as a hunting shotgun. Building a cannon is fairly straightforward, but there are a significant number of regulations that govern its operation which must be adhered to.”
So far he’s only shot “test slugs,” which are boxes filled with sand, but he’s working on more aerodynamic, rocket-shaped delivery vehicles. “I am expecting to be able to launch the glide probes at more than 1500 meters per second,” he told me. “A satellite has to be traveling at about 8 km/sec to reach orbit.”
Potential launch vehicle. Image: Starfire Scientific Inc., used with permission.
The physics are tricky: With the engine left on the ground all the force hits at once—the payload is hit with 50,000-60,000 PSI in an instant—and then immediately it begins slowing down. To work around this, Graf says he’s worked out a multi-chambered firing system that’s explained only briefly in the video. (It's proprietary tech, so Graf doesn't want to divulge too many details.)
“I can tell you that the point of the multi-chambering is to create a constant pressure system along the entire length of the barrel,” he said. “This results in lower barrel pressures and lower g loadings but with higher launch velocities.”
If the Kickstarter is funded by March 2, Graf wants to start with suborbital flights this year. “After that I will be developing a satellite launching vehicle. If funding is available I can start orbital test flight in about two years,” he said.
Maybe it’s the Canadian accent, but I imagine if almost anyone else said “It won’t be long before the Starfire space cannon is in operation,” he or she would sound like a budding supervillain.
But when Graf follows it up with “I am hoping that this will be the beginning of a new era of low cost space flight,” it’s pretty disarming. Rather than saying “You’ll never get away with this, Graf!” I wished him well.
Although while watching videos of the Starfire cannon being tested, I feel like I should've also wish his neighbors well.