It’s no coincidence that Elon Musk wants to both tunnel down into and soar above the Earth. If you ask the team at HyperSciences, the best way to get to space is to flip drilling technology upside down and point it at the sky. In the process, that would mean ditching the large, expensive fuel stages that propel what we generally think of as a rocket — massive cylindrical thing, tiny payload at the tip — into space.
This month, the company hit a major milestone on its quest to get to suborbital space, capping off Phase I of a research grant with NASA with a pair of successful proof-of-concept launches demonstrating the company’s one-two punch of ram acceleration and chemical combustion.
HyperSciences put its vision to the test at Spaceport America, conducting a series of high-altitude tests at the desolate launch site an hour outside of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The company launched “a number of projectiles,” ranging from 1.5 ft long to over 9 ft long. HyperSciences sent up some off-the-shelf electronics in the process, in a partnership with an aerospace research group at the University of Texas.
“We targeted hitting 600 to 1000 G’s (multiples of Earth’s gravity) on the payloads and accomplished that,” HyperSciences Senior Adviser Raymond Kaminski said. “The payloads felt similar levels to what commercial off-the-shelf electronics (like a cell phone) would feel when getting dropped on the floor.” Kaminski returned to aerospace with HyperSciences after a turn in the startup world following an earlier career with NASA, where he worked as an engineer for the International Space Station.
While the 1.5 ft. system launch was enough to meet its goals for NASA’s purposes, the company was testing the waters with an admittedly more impressive 9 ft. 18” projectile. “We’re going to launch a nine foot section — you can’t deny this anymore,” Kaminski said.
Oddly enough, the whole thing started after HyperSciences founder and CEO Mark Russell drilled a bunch of really, really deep holes. Russell formerly led crew capsule development at Jeff Bezos’ space gambit Blue Origin before leaving to get involved in his family’s mining business. At Blue Origin, he was employee number 10. Russell’s experience with mining and drilling led him to the idea that by elongating the chemical-filled tubes that he’d use to drill in the past, the system he used to break up rock could go to space.
“You have a tube and you have a projectile. It’s got a sharp nose and you’ve pre filled your tube with natural gas and air,” Russell explained. “It rides on the shock wave like a surfer rides on the ocean.”
The team believes that launching something into space can be faster, cheaper and far more efficient, but it requires a total reimagining of the process. If SpaceX’s reusable first stages were a sea change for spaceflight, the technology behind HyperSciences would be a revelation, but that’s assuming the vision — and the hypersonic tech that propels it — could be scaled up and adapted to the tricky, high-stakes business of sending things to space.
A hypersonic propulsion system can launch a projectile at at least five times the speed of sound, causing it to reach speeds of Mach 5 or higher — more than a mile a second. Most of the buzz in hypersonic tech right now is around defense technology — missiles that travel fast enough to evade even sophisticated missile defense systems or strike targets so quickly they can’t be intercepted — but aerospace and geothermal energy are two other big areas of interest.
Last December, The Washington Post reported that moving from rocket-boosted weapons to hypersonic weapons is the “first, second, and third” priority for defense right now. The Pentagon’s 2019 budget currently has $2 billion earmarked for its hypersonics program, and that funding grew by almost a third year-over-year. “You never want to put out a tech when the government is asking for it,” Kaminski said. “At that point it’s too late and you’re playing catch up.”
In spite of the opportunity, HyperSciences isn’t keen to get into the world of weaponry. “We are a platform hypersonics company, we are not weapons designers,” the team told TechCrunch. “We do not plan on being a weapon provider. HyperSciences is focused on making the world a better place.”
To that end, HyperSciences is maneuvering to the fore of non-weaponry hypersonics applications. The company sponsors the University of Washington lab that’s pioneered applications for ram accelerator technology it uses and has sole rights to the tech invented there.
On the geothermal energy note, with $1 million from Shell, HyperSciences was able to develop what it calls a “common engine” — a hypersonic platform that can drill deep to reach geothermal energy stores or point upward to launch things toward the stars. “HyperSciences is about getting really good on Earth first,” Russell said, pointing to one advantage of the cross-compatible system that lets the company apply lessons it learns from drilling to its plans for flight.
“Our HyperDrone technology can be used to test new air-breathing hypersonic engines for NASA or aircraft companies that want to build the next-gen super- and hypersonic aircraft to go point-to-point around the world in an hour or two,” the team explained. “Right now, you need a rocket on a big aircraft, just to get experiments up to speed. We can do that at the end of our tube right from the ground.”
Though there have been rumors of acquisition interest, for now HyperSciences is pursuing an offbeat crowdfunding model that’s certainly out of the ordinary in a literally nuts and bolts aerospace business. The company is currently running a SeedInvest campaign that allows small, unaccredited investors to put as little as a thousand dollars toward the team’s vision. At the time of writing, the campaign was sitting at around five million dollars raised from nearly 2,000 relatively small-time investors.
“SpaceX’s seed rounds were run by big VCs,” Russell said. “Where do you get access? These are big industries the public never usually gets to invest in.”
Russell prefers to keep HyperSciences flexible in its pursuits and believes that relying on venture capital would force the company to narrow the scope of its mission. The team is quick to note that in spite of its relationship with Shell, the oil and energy giant doesn’t own any equity in the company. By hopping between industry-specific contracts with a boost from crowdfunding, HyperSciences hopes to continue pursuing its platform’s applications in parallel.
“The next overall architecture for spaceflight will be using hypersonics,” Russell said. “We obviously started this with the idea that you could gamechange spaceflight. By removing the first and potentially the second stage of a rocket [and] putting all of that energy in the ground… you could gamechange spaceflight, no doubt.”