The problem with virtually all methods of giving a launch vehicle velocity before launch is the atmosphere. The higher the velocity, the worse the drag.

In the comments to a recent question, someone propose to shoot a sacrificial projectile first, clearing away a vacuum tunnel for the "real" launch vehicle.

At high velocities, intuition fails. Is this in any way possible?

Some potential problems I can see, without being able to quantify any of them:

  • The first projectile needs a higher start velocity than the second one, as it deals with more drag (which is the point). Perhaps the delay is too long, making any vacuum tunnel close too fast?

  • Maybe the turbulence caused will shake the launch vehicle apart?

  • Perhaps the atmosphere is just too thick, making it impossible for the first projectile to knock away any significant part of it?

  • Maybe it's impossible to get the first projectile out of the way fast enough?

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ At some point, common sense has to take over, and say that this is simply a monumentally stupid idea. $\endgroup$
    – TonyK
    Feb 1, 2020 at 21:15
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The closer the second projectile follows the first, the better it will work. It will work best if they actually touch each other. Now you have one big projectile... $\endgroup$ Feb 1, 2020 at 23:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ A "real" launch vehicle flies a gravity turn. The lower atmopshere and its drag has only a very small part in terms of dV needed to reach orbit, most speed gain is outside of high pressure. $\endgroup$
    – user34755
    Feb 2, 2020 at 0:07

1 Answer 1


Some starting numbers here would be that the leading hypersonic projectile will be scooping up a cylinder of atmosphere equal to the frontal area and it's traveled path. The first approximation of the distance that will halve the projectile speed will be the point at which the mass of that block of atmosphere equals the mass of the projectile.

Mass of atmosphere over a point at sea level 1kg per square, so clearing 100km of air going straight up with a 10m by 10m projectile involves shifting something like 1000 tonnes of air, 1.4 times that if shooting at a 45 degree angle, so your 10m by 10m projectile is weighing that sort of amount as well to achieve useful clearance.

Once you've fired your 1000 tonne bullet the air will try to return, and the gases move at their speed of sound, so 300 m/s for sea level air. This means that the 10 meter tunnel will be well on the way to closing in 0.015 of a second, though pressure and inertia will be at work here as well slowing the return, and producing some interesting pressure effects as the shock front meets. The flight path up the vacuum channel is probably unstable, with a potential for drag forces to amplify any asymmetry and try to tumble the projectile out of the channel.

So in physical terms it can work to make a vacuum but you need to fire very heavy projectiles fractions of a second apart (possibly with active guidence). If going down this path the answer is very high sustained rates of fire. If you can shoot 1k tonne projectiles every 0.05 of a second then your projectile stream will keep a low pressure zone in place, and probably a decent high speed tail wind.

Though power demands of doing this would be substantial. twenty 1k tonne projectiles a second to 10kms is 50 T watts, about 50 times more the total earth capacity. Actual launch velocity probably needs to be higher, depending on how much of that 1000 tonnes is second stage rocket to stabilise the final orbit.

Note also that bringing this system online will produce a rain of 1000 tonne projectiles at various locations down range as the chanel builds. Any misfeeds in the 20 rounds a second feed system will also require rebuilding the channel, prducing more short landings.

So while the physics can be abused enough to work it does not make a very practical space launch system by itself and would be very dangerous to be around in many many way.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ 1000 tonne projectiles are doable, but they look like this $\endgroup$ Feb 1, 2020 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Hohmannfan That's not very fuel efficient indeed $\endgroup$
    – Swike
    Feb 1, 2020 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ @ Hohmannfan yeah scale effects push this well out of credible. Scaling even further up to city block sized projectiles gets better volume/drag area results but had even more zeros in the answer. $\endgroup$ Feb 1, 2020 at 23:36
  • $\begingroup$ Won't the rear projectile ram the front one since the front one has higher deceleration? $\endgroup$ Feb 4, 2020 at 11:46
  • $\begingroup$ @organic Marble, would assume so, at least until you have fired enough to not only evacuate the air but also the leftover leading projectiles. See second last paragraph about the amount of landscaping this thing would be doing downrange every time it spun up. $\endgroup$ Feb 5, 2020 at 8:51

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