Space Cannon (what more do I really have to say?)


Special deliveries for space could someday arrive via cannon, if physicist John Hunter has his way. His natural-gas powered Quicklauncher system could cut the cost of equipment transport from $5000 per pound, to about $250. The prototype is set to be tested next month.

How to Shoot Stuff into Space

The gun combusts natural gas in a heat exchanger within a chamber of hydrogen gas, heating the hydrogen to 2,600ËšF and causing a 500 percent increase in pressure.

Operators open the valve, and the hot, pressurized hydrogen quickly expands down the tube, pushing the payload forward.

After speeding down the 3,300-foot-long barrel, the projectile shoots out of the gun at 13,000 mph. An iris at the end of the gun closes, capturing the hydrogen gas to use again.

Popular Science: A Cannon For Shooting Supplies into Space

(Thanks, Lee Billings!)

Image courtesy Flickr user edbrambley via CC



  1. I really like the idea of putting it in the ocean like that, as it removes problems related to putting it in the ground (differing strata, ground water, maintenance access, etc.). When he says “iris” I hope it’s figurative, as a really fast gate valve or even a ball valve would be more practical in the long run.

  2. Sounds great in theory, but dayum, creating enough pressure to propel a large object to 13,000 mph exit velocity and then instantly stopping all that pressure… is anyone else picturing Elmer Fudd standing there with a blackened face and gun barrel spread like a banana peel?

  3. Yeah, this made me think of Gerald Bull and HARP as well.

    Great theory, but I’m skeptical about pulling it off.

  4. Never let physics get in the way of a good VC pitch. Look forward to Richard Branson, champagne flute in hand, pushing the big red button firing the first shot.

  5. How much money to use this technology to put things in space versus how much money to use this technology to put things on top of people thousands of miles away.

  6. Jules Verne would be pleased.

    This could only work for cargo, of course. Living things might not suffer well the sudden G-forces.

    Hope they get the trajectory right – if not, its a long way to Saturn. :P

  7. As fascinating as this is, I’m even more curious about why it must (surely) be too good to be true. Let’s assume you’re using this to launch stuff of ideal shape and arbitrarily rugged composition, and that as long as there’s a shape/material combination that exists on the Earth that can survive the journey, you’re good. (Titanium rifle bullets?) Let’s also assume it’s Mossad’s day off.

    So far we’ve got “how do you keep the barrel from splitting?” and “can anything survive hitting thick atmosphere that fast?” Knowing absolutely nothing useful about the masses or forces involved, I’ll add “won’t the recoil lodge the remains of your gun in 50 feet of ocean-bottom?”

    What other cool physics-based objections might there be?

  8. “What other cool physics-based objections might there be? ”

    How fast would a flying squirrel have to travel to overtake a moose shot out of a cannon?

  9. Well one issue is that it actually ISN’T possible for a space cannon to be the only source of Delta V to launch something into orbit. Pretty much by definition, a cannon can only place objects into an “orbit” that intersects the Earth’s surface. So it launches rocket to altitude that THEN fires to circularize the orbit. And the greater proportion of delta V provided by the cannon rather than the rocket, the more horizontal the launch is, and the more difficulty with atmospheric drag and heating. I’m not asserting that a light gas gun WOULDN’T be helpful in getting cargo to orbit. But orbit isn’t easy and never will be.

    1. I wonder what kinds of supplies will survive this sudden acceleration from 0 to 13000 mph.

      “… fuel tanks and ruggedized satellites,” according to the article.

    2. Spam, twinkies, tomatoes especially bred by Monsanto. Hard-boiled eggs only. For carbonated beverages it is recommended you wait some time for the carbon dioxide to equilibrate before opening.

      1. “The gun produces 5,000 Gs…a person shot out of it would probably get compressed to half their size”

        At 5,000g’s I’m not sure a tomato would survive, bred by Monsanto or not. According to wikipedia even mechanical wristwatches start to break under that kind force.

        Also if your heating the hydrogen to 2600° F, wouldn’t that temp:

        a) boil the ocean around the canon
        b) destroy the projectile your sending to space
        c) warp the barrel or fire chamber beyond use before it was even fired
        d) all of the above

        1. So it starts out tomatoes, arrives as sauce. And you don’t have to strain the seeds, as they’d be crushed by the pressure. Alternatively, they can ship graphite, it arrives as diamonds.

        2. One word aero-gel, aero-gel and vacum. Okay two words, aero-gel vacume and liquid nitrogen. Our three main components for heat shielding are: aero-gel, vacum,liquid nitrogen and glass…

  10. Granted, I haven’t done the math, but it seems to me that accelerating most things to 13,000 mph in a fraction of a second would destroy the item you’re trying to put into orbit.

  11. My concern is that the overall simplicity and low cost will make this realistic and accessible to hobbyists. I forsee future space missions needing to dodge rock hard frozen pumpkins, watermelons and water balloons.

  12. At the very least, this could be used to insert large tanks of materials (e.g. water) into orbit, reducing the cost of living there.

  13. I love that word “ruggedized” — it sounds like it’s straight from a sales pitch.

    “Won’t the satellite be damaged when it is shot out of a cannon at Mach 17?”

    “Oh don’t worry, it will be ruggedized.”

    “Oh, ok. Cool.”

    1. Other interesting numbers include:

      13,000 mph = 19,058 feet per second

      With a barrel only 3,300 feet long, your projectile is leaving the barrel in only a tenth of a second.

      1. cymk, your estimate of a tenth of a second from a 3300 ft long tube is a bit off. Even at a constant velocity of 19058 ft/sec it would take almost two tenths of a second to exit the tube. this doesn’t take into account the time it takes to accelerate.
        assuming a 3300ft long tube and a final v of 19058 ft/s it would take roughly 0.35 seconds to accelerate to that speed. At an acceleration of 55031 ft/s^2 that’s only ~1700 G’s.
        Of course that’s still enough to wrack the hell out of our payload. the heat shielding, the warping cannon and the impact on hitting the atmosphere aren’t as big of a concern as the shock to the payload which is likely to have electronics which means likely to break.
        next problem is how repeatable is a launch. we’re talking about firing something into space with no self-propulsion to correct with. who catches it?

  14. So, how are they handling the recoil??? The constant acceleration calculation comes out to 1721G. Even if the cannon is 100x as massive, odds are that it’ll submerge before the payload escapes the cannon. Forget the iris at the end to keep the hydrogen from escaping, what about keeping the water from not entering?

    1. Lets say the acceleration is 2000g. That’s one ton of force for every lb of payload. So a 1000 lb payload is 1000 tons of ‘recoil’ on the gun platform. A supertanker has 100,000-400,000 tons displacement, so buoyancy isn’t an issue. The platform would barely wiggle.

  15. Also if your heating the hydrogen to 2600° F, wouldn’t that temp:
    a) boil the ocean around the canon
    b) destroy the projectile your sending to space
    c) warp the barrel or fire chamber beyond use before it was even fired
    d) all of the above

    a) No.
    b) No.
    c) No.
    d) N/A.

    One might consider perfectly ordinary physics and the specific heat capacity of hydrogen gas, the type and amount of insulation used, the time the hot gasses are in contact with the payload/barrel/containment, Boyles Law, how the barrel etc might be cooled. Temperature is not the same as heat. Physics and Engineering provide answers when applied appropriately.

  16. As an article in Popular Science, that says it all.

    I subscribed to the mag for several years until I finally wised up and realized virtually *none* of that crap ever comes to pass.

  17. Seems like it would make more sense to build this in Chile. That’s 13,000 feet less atmosphere you have to shoot the projectile through.

    1. Or any other high-altitude location for that matter, but the whole ocean thing might be part of the cooling system.

      Personally, I believe a rail-gun would be a suitable option for space transport. Think of a giant ramp with a platform on it that gets accelerated pretty fast and then it launches the payload, since the acceleration to the target speed is over a bit more time, the Gs suffered by the payload would be lower, while still potentially reaching an appropriate speed to break through the Earth’s gravitational pull. It would probably cost more in terms of energy per use, but it would be a safer idea than the cannon and you can recharge it with renewable energy (such as solar energy, mostly to reduce the costs) since it would probably be a bad idea to send stuff into orbit very often at night.

  18. There was a proposal in the ’50s to do something similar but heated the hydrogen with !yay! a nuclear bomb!

    1. Yes. Put two legs on it, make sure it’s a bare-chested blonde with a british accent piloting it, test it in Alaska, and we’re all good to go.

  19. I remember seeing something like this on a few episodes of Looney Tunes. I don’t think it ever panned out well.

  20. Why do I get the feeling that this is what will happen to all the checked luggage on commercial space flights.

    Shouldn’t this be on the top of a mountain and not in the ocean?

    Why doesn’t it cook the contents of the projectile? (dangerous considering water and O2 might be the best things to ship this way)

  21. Fry: What if I don’t want to be a delivery boy?

    Leela: Then you’ll be fired…

    Fry: Fine.

    Leela: …out of a cannon, into the sun.

  22. Pizzas delivered with this method would probably arrive at your home in roughly the same state they do with the current system.

  23. Yes, but could you shoot the end of a mono-filament cable into orbit with it? Instant space-ladder, no?

    1. that space cannon is wrong on so many levels it’s not funny, as is the space elevator, basic orbital mechanics, an elevator or cannon segment of equal mass sweeps out an equal radial area (Keppler), then the top segment of the elevator would travel far less distance then the lower segments in the same time, in essence, trailing farther and farther behind as it’s pushed up and unceasingly farther and farther behind, until either the elevator ruptures or the elevator wraps completely around the earth, which is, of course, absurd, but if you can qualify for VC lifted from retirement funds, and ‘green’ tax incentives paid to the VC manager, then go for it!

  24. The late, great Bill Hicks once said, “can’t we take all this money and technology we’re putting into the (Gulf) War, use it to shoot food at hungry people?” Well here it is.

    Stealth banana! Smart fruit!

  25. Looks like the canon in the picture is the one exhibited in the Forbidden City, right?
    It’s a funny picture. I really like the expression of the toy. :)

  26. #17 is right. An “orbit” that starts out intersecting the surface of the Earth will intersect the surface of the Earth again less than half an orbit later, unless a rocket engine gives it a little more velocity at apogee.

    #62: The base of the elevator isn’t in orbit, it’s attached to the Earth’s surface, so it goes around much more slowly than something orbiting at low altitude. Things resting on the surface do not sweep out “equal areas in equal times” to something in orbit. Synchronous orbit is about 20,000 miles up.

  27. Not new, Done by a Canadian in the 1960. The remains of the canon are still around . He got funding for it from NASA and The canadain goverment. I forget his name but he was murder in the 1990 when he was working for Iraq to improve there guns. Also was working on an improved model for them.

  28. why don’t they just use a cannon barrel system on a normal spaceship, so that when they launch it there would be less fuel needed to get to speed as the propulsion from the burning of the fuel would increase pressure behind the rocket as well as slowly moving the rocket out of the cannon, then it would get the same distance with less fuel.
    or if they can fire fuel tanks into space with it they could build a shuttle refueling station on the moon and once the fuel is up there it could have rockets to bring it into orbit around the moon. volia.

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