Back in the 19th Century, the French author Jules Verne imagined launching an expedition to the moon using a gigantic cannon. That method of space travel was problematic, mainly because the sudden acceleration would kill any living thing. However, a company called General Atomics is proposing a similar approach to launch small satellites using an electromagnetic railgun.

What is an electromagnetic railgun?

While a conventional cannon fires a projectile with the expanding gasses of an explosive charge, an electromagnetic railgun accelerates a similar projectile using electromagnetic currents.

The military is already developing railguns to fire ordinance hundreds of miles at six times the speed of sound, significantly enhancing the combat power of naval ships and ground-based artillery. The aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford uses a railgun to launch aircraft.

How would a railgun launch small satellites?

The idea that General Atomics is mulling is to build a long railgun, the length of several football fields, with part of it at least up the slopes of a mountain, to launch small satellites into low Earth orbit. The advantage of such a system is that one would not need a rocket to launch something into space, just electricity. The railgun Launch System would be far more reliable and less expensive than a rocket.

The disadvantage of such a method would be that railgun capable of launching something at orbital velocity will likely be very expensive, challenging to build, and the places in the world where such a facility could be built would probably be limited.

General Atomics plans

General Atomics is best known for building military drones and running uranium mines.

It recently got into the small satellite business with an acquisition of Miltec. The company has already been making military grade CubeSats for the past several years. It regards its primary market as the United States military which is willing to pay a premium for quality and reliability.

The railgun launch system is more of a concept that a firm plan at the moment.

Whether the thing ever gets built will depend on how the small satellite market continues to evolve. If the payloads can be launched at enough volume, an investment in a railgun launch system makes more sense.

A railgun launch system on the moon

Of some relevance to the Trump push to return to the moon is the idea of building a railgun launch system on the lunar surface. With one-sixth gravity and no atmosphere to speak of, such a system makes more sense on the moon. It could launch everything from rocket fuel refined from lunar water to helium 3 cheaply and at volume.