An Inexpensive Solution for Quickly Launching Military Satellites Into Space

By William I. Oberholtzer
During a recent trip to Yuma Proving Ground, in Arizona, I passed a unique looking artillery piece in a remote area of the installation. It has an extremely long barrel and appeared to be anchored in a concrete abutment. Having more than a passing interest in ordnance I made some inquiries as to origins and purpose of the gun.  

What I had stumbled across, on that hot desert day, was one of three unique guns that had been part of a very ambitious undertaking called the “High Altitude Research Project,” or HARP.  The brainchild of Jerry Bull (of “Iranian Super Gun” fame), HARP was an innovative approach to putting satellites in space. HARP started out as a joint project between the Canadian Armaments and Research and Development Establishment (CARDE) and the U.S. Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory and Aberdeen Proving Ground to study the upper atmosphere. It later evolved into a project to economically place satellites into orbit, as well as the basis of improved and extended range artillery.

HARP consisted of two 16-inch naval guns — one welded atop of the other with reinforcing cables and stiffening bars running the length of both barrels. The barrels were affixed to a breach anchored into a heavy concrete and steel ground-mount capable of withstanding the detonation of nearly 1,000 pounds of propellant. From a firing point located in Barbados, the HARP could send a projectile, called a Martlet, to an altitude of 180 kilometers, a record that stands today. Had it not been for political infighting and inter-service rivalries, Bull would have, undoubtedly, been successful in developing a cannon-launched satellite delivery system. Fortunately, good ideas tend to stand the test of time.  

Fast-forward to the 21st century. One of the original members of Bull’s research team retired Col. John J. Frost, an armaments design engineer, has lots of ideas about how to adapt HARP to current military needs.

Satellites are one of the technological pillars of our modern society. They facilitate the use of products and services that were science fiction just a few decades ago.  Today, they have become an intricate part of our day-to-day lives.

Satellites are an indispensible part of daily military operations. Whether relying on them for global voice communications, GPS, uplinks to unmanned aerial vehicles, vectoring precision munitions, troop emails, or a laundry list of applications, the military has nearly maxed-out the capabilities of its current systems to the point where it is having to rely more on commercial satellites just to keep up increasing demand.

In the private sector, commercial satellites are the glue that binds that nation’s critical infrastructure — particularly, in the energy, communications, transportation, and banking sectors — together. Whether passing corporate data from point to point, conducting teleconference calls, tracking vehicle movement, weather, livestock, they have become indispensable. This undeniable fact has not been lost on our adversaries who, although adept at exploiting select technologies to their own advantage, are not held hostage or encumbered by the lack of it.

Satellites are now, and will continue to be, an Achilles’ heel.  Their loss due to the actions of our adversaries, collision with space debris, solar activities, or electromechanical malfunction can have disastrous effects of unimaginable consequences. So the question arises, if we can’t protect them, how can we quickly replace them?

Rocket and aircraft launched satellites are options. However, they are both time consuming and costly. Enter Gerald Bull and the concepts derived from the HARP. But instead of using explosive propellants and gun tubes to put satellites in space, it would use electromagnetic energy.

Enter rail gun technology. Although still in its developmental stages, rail gun technology may be the answer to rapidly replacing satellites when they are destroyed by an opponent or otherwise become inoperative. Lacking many of the distracters of gun launch systems such as the weight, volatility of propellants, rail guns may be the answer.      

Rail guns are made up of four basic components: the power supply, rails, armature, and the projectile. The power supply supplies electrical current to rails, made of conductive material, mounted parallel to each other. One rail is positively charged and the other negatively. The magnetic field in one rail rotates in the opposite direction of the magnetic field in the opposite rail. This induces a magnetic field called a “Lorentz Force” which is repelled away from the energy source. The energy created by the electrostatic discharge is measured in mega joules  (one joule = 6.241506363e+18? volts). The Lorentz Force propels the armature forward on which an object or projectile can be mounted, similar to a Sabot, and subsequently propelled. While this is an over simplification of the technology, keep in mind that, like artillery pieces, it is scalable. Unlike artillery pieces, whose velocities are limited to approximately 4,265 feet per second, rail guns can have achieved velocities approaching 16,000 feet per second with, theoretically, no upper limit.  

Like the HARP before its political demise, rail guns are in their developmental stages. As the technology matures and technological issues (power sources, recharge rates, and component durability) overcome, satellite launch capability becomes an increasingly viable concept.  

Given our dependency on satellites, the Pentagon should not wait until it experiences a catastrophic loss of our capabilities before it seeks a solution. The recent publication of the successful work done by the Naval Research Laboratory on rail gun technology indicates it is timely to consider the use of the rail gun as a timely response for the initial or replacement launch of satellites.

William I. Oberholtzer is a retired Army officer who specializes in weapons technology. He is currently employed by IIF Data Solutions in Centreville, Va.

Topics: Space

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