Putting things into space isn’t an easy thing to do. The amount of energy required to reach orbital speeds means that we really only have one option available to us: strapping whatever it is to a giant barrel of explosives and setting light to it. Whilst the science of this is now well understood it doesn’t mean that we’re immune from mistakes, especially those which arise from the inherently complex systems that these rockets have become. Indeed just last week we saw the even a long time space contractor, one with numerous launches under its belt, can suffer a catastrophic accident without any indication that things were going to go wrong. Unfortunately tragedy has struck another private space venture with Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashing, killing one of the test pilots.
This unfortunately isn’t the first tragedy to befall this project. Back in 2007, shortly after their X-prize winning journey and subsequent partnership with Virgin, Scaled Composites had a fatal accident that killed 3 of their engineers. Whilst this wasn’t a flight accident, it was a catastrophic failure of the nitrous oxide tank that the ship uses, it did make many people question just how safe this kind of craft could be made. To their credit the subsequent 7 years were incident free with the prototype undergoing numerous tests both in the air and back down on the ground. Last week however that streak was broken when the VSS Enterprise broke up over the desert in California, killing one of the pilots and destroying the craft.
Initial reports centred on the fact that SpaceShipTwo was testing a new fuel mixture which could have potentially exploded causing the craft to fail. For a motor like the one in SpaceShipTwo, namely a hybrid rocket engine, this is highly unlikely as the fuel doesn’t have the same capability to combust explosively as its liquid cousins do. Had the changes been with the oxidizer or tank design then I’d be more inclined to blame them for failure. Indeed current reports have shown that the motor has been found fully intact at the crash site, indicating that a mid air explosion was not the cause of the crash.
Investigators are now focusing on the events leading up to the crash, including the possibility that the wings were unlocked too early into their flight. SpaceShipTwo has an unique system for its re-entry, it’s wings fold up in a process called feathering that ensures it comes back down belly-first. Engaging this system is a 2 stage process, requiring the pilots to first unlock the wings and then engage the feathering process. Initial reports have suggested that the wings were unlocked during powered ascent although it’s still too early to say if that was the cause of the crash or not.
To his credit Richard Branson has committed himself to the project even in the face of this disaster which means we’ll still be seeing SpaceShipTwo make flights into space sometime in the future. This will definitely set them back but I’m sure that the new versions of the ship will ensure that an event of this nature cannot happen again. It’s an unfortunate reminder that things like this still carry some form of risk with them and those who dare to be on the frontiers like this really are risking their lives for our greater good.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Virgin Galactic had disappeared into a cloud of vapourware. Whilst they had managed to build, fly and drop test SpaceShipTwo over two years ago there really hadn’t been much more from them since. Sure if you were keen you could find out what they were up to but the majority of the time it was more of the same: dozens of drop tests under their belt with no firm indication of when the next envelope push was going to happen. Indeed the last time I wrote about them was over 2 years ago and every time I wrote a space article since then I’ve always checked up on them to see if anything had changed. Unfortunately nothing did but a couple weeks ago I heard a rumour that they might be doing their first powered test soon.
That rumour appears to have come true.
WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo launched around 8 hours ago and performed their routine ascent up to about 14KMs. Then they separated and shortly afterwards SpaceShipTwo ignited its N2O/Rubber hybrid motor for 16 seconds, propelling it 2.7KMs higher and seeing it reach speeds just over Mach 1. SpaceShipTwo then glided back down to earth for a successful landing, aptly demonstrating the scaled up motor from the original Ansari X-Prize winning craft was quite capable of accomplishing its required task. It’s one thing to read the the text however and another thing altogether to watch it happen:
It’s a huge step forward for Virgin Galactic as it serves as a solid verification of all the critical systems required in order to get the craft into space. Further testing will see the motor burn for longer and longer each time, pushing SpaceShipTwo ever closer to that goal of passing the Kármán line at 100KM above sea level. Virgin Galactic appears to be quite confident in the craft as they’re planning for a full space flight before the year is out which, if the motor is similarly built to SpaceShipOne’s, would see them ramp the burn time from the paltry 16 seconds we saw today to well over 90 seconds. Considering the rigorous amount of testing SpaceShipTwo has undergone prior to this I can’t see much that would stand in the way of achieving this goal.
Virgin Galactic is going to be the first step in commoditizing space access. Sure right now it’s not much more than a joy ride (although even short suborbital flights can have some good science done with them) but SpaceShipTwo is the first to market in private space travel for regular people and with so many others already throwing their hats in the ring I can’t imagine it’ll stay so expensive for long. I might not be able to afford a ticket yet but I don’t think I’ll be waiting too long for my chance at it and that makes me incredibly excited.
Congratulations Virgin Galactic and godspeed.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have a massive nerd crush on any private space company that’s demonstrated working hardware. Long time readers of this blog will know that there are two in particular: Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. Most recently all of my love has been directed to SpaceX as they began to make waves with their Falcon 1 and 9 rockets but it’s been a while since we heard anything about Virgin Galactic’s craft, SpaceShipTwo. Three months ago saw them flying a full crew aboard both the VSS Enterprise and Mothership Eve so we knew they were in the thick of testing and verifying all of their flight systems. Still even the extremely head of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson, hadn’t made any statements about the progress of the craft.
That was until just recently, however.
Flicking through my Twitter feed this morning I noticed quite a few articles popping up mentioning SpaceShipTwo. As it turns out the sub-orbital craft made its first solo flight after be released from it’s mothership at 45,000 feet and gliding back down to earth:
“This was one of the most exciting days in the whole history of Virgin,” said Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic. “For the first time since we seriously began the project in 2004, I watched the world’s first manned commercial spaceship landing on the runway at Mojave Air and Space Port and it was a great moment. Now, the sky is no longer the limit and we will begin the process of pushing beyond to the final frontier of space itself over the next year.”
“This is a critical milestone in Virgin Galactic’s test program and a great day for the commercial spaceflight industry,” added John Gedmark, Executive Director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “At the end of the day, getting hardware off the ground is what it’s really all about. Today’s SpaceShipTwo test flight marks another key milestone towards opening the space frontier for private individuals, researchers, and explorers. Congratulations to the entire SpaceShipTwo team.”
Virgin Galactic has since released a video of the flight in question:
The news comes hot on the heels of an announcement made just a couple weeks ago that Virgin Galactic will be open for business in just 18 months. Between now and then there are still a myriad of tests and certifications that need to be done on the craft, not least of which is several powered flights to the edge of space. This first drop test verifies SpaceShipTwo’s glider mode of operation and is a crucial first step towards the ultimate goal of powered flight. The next 18 months will see a steady progression tests to push the envelope of SpaceShipTwo’s capabilities ensuring that this iconic spacecraft is never too far from public eye.
To me SpaceShipTwo represents exactly where the private space industry needs to be heading. Branson’s focus on commoditising travel to space ensures that, whilst sub-orbital junkets are out of the reach of the everyman today, one day they will be as international air travel was decades ago. Virgin Galactic is also committed to furthering their capabilities beyond sub-orbital flights with Branson stating on several occasions that should SpaceShipTwo be a success (and by all means, it already is) that the next generation of craft will be capable of orbital flight. You could take that as just marketing hype but when the man behind SpaceShipOne already has designs for such a craft it would seem doubtful that it was mere rhetoric.
Humanity is on the cusp of a revolution in space where venturing to the final frontier will be as common as visiting another country. As someone who can’t stop dreaming about seeing the blue marble for themselves the idea of anyone with the will and the want to venture beyond our atmosphere being able to do so brings me unimaginable joy. The next decade will see amazing revolutions in the private space travel industry and I, for one, can’t wait.
I won’t lie to you it’s been hard to be motivated about much with Canberra’s climate the way it is at the moment. Waking up to a backyard covered in frost, whilst beautiful in its own way, is a sure way to make me yearn for the comforts of my warm bed forsaking any work commitments. Despite that though I’ve had quite a few productive weekends huddle away from the icy bite of the outdoors and I’ve come to notice a lovely trend in the headlines gracing my feed reader: There’s been some tangible progress in almost all areas of space exploration and that never fails to make me extremely happy.
The first bit of news comes from Virgin Galactic. It’s been a while since we last heard from them after the maiden flightof SpaceShipTwo, almost 4 months to the day. Still that doesn’t mean that progress hasn’t been made and the announcement came out just recently that they had performed their first fully crewed flight:
A private suborbital spaceship built for the space tourism firm Virgin Galactic made its first flight with a crew onboard Thursday as it soared over California’s Mojave Desert beneath its enormous mothership.
The commercial spaceliner – called VSS Enterprise, one of the company’s fleet of SpaceShipTwo spacecraft– did not try to reach space in the test flight. Instead, it stayed firmly attached to its WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve mothership.
The two crewmembers riding onboard VSS Enterprise evaluated all of the spacecraft’s systems and functions during the 6-hour, 12-minute flight, Virgin Galactic officials said in a statement. In addition, automated sensors and ground crews conducted thorough vehicle systems tests.
Now that might not seem like much on the surface but it is in fact quite a giant step forward for Virgin Galactic and the Scaled Composites guys. The two craft soared to over 15KMs high, that’s nearly double the height that most passenger jets fly at. To put that in perspective that means that many of the life support components of the craft have been verified as at that altitude you wouldn’t last long without functioning life support, and definitely not the 6 hours they were up there for. Completing these tests brings the SpaceShipTwo dream that much closer to reality and with the commercial flights scheduled for 2011 I’m sure we’ll see a powered test flight before the year is out.
The second came in the form of my current space crush, SpaceX. It’s been little over a month since their Falcon 9 rocket soaredinto the history books and gave us Australians a lightshow to rival those that our Nordic cousins had experienced. This week brings news that so soon after their last launch they’re already gearing up for the next one, with the parts for a new Falcon 9 arriving at Cape Caranaveral:
Six weeks after the first Falcon 9 rocketed into orbit, pieces of the second launcher have begun arriving at Cape Canaveral for a shakedown flight of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule in September, according to the company’s top executive.
The Falcon 9 first stage pulled into Cape Canaveral Thursday after a truck ride from SpaceX’s test site in central Texas.
The stage was placed inside the company’s rocket assembly hangar at launch pad 40. Officials said they untarped the rocket and completed initial inspections Thursday night.
Engineers plan more testing over the next several weeks to make sure the stage and its nine Merlin engines are ready for flight.
Again it might not seem like a lot but it’s a testament to the fact that SpaceX is quite serious about being a fully fledged orbital launch company competing with the giants of Boeing and Lockheed who’ve dominated this sector for decades. Additionally it shows that many of the processes that are required for them to be able to churn out a respectable number of rockets are in place and working beautifully, rather than the recent launch being nothing than a one off prototype ala Ares 1-X. The next flight, which looks to be on track for a launch towards the end of this year, will fly the first fully functional Dragon capsule complete with full avionics, life support and most importantly the heat shield for re-entry. The current specs of the Dragon capsule have it rated to be able to return to Earth from missions to the Moon and Mars, something that suprised the entire space community. I have no doubt that it is quite capable of this and it gives me the feeling that Elon Musk might have dreams of going far beyond LEO with SpaceX. I’m getting all giddy just thinking about it.
The last, and most impressive, is something that any science fiction fan will tell you is possible but until just recently it wasn’t actually used as the primary means of propelling a space craft. IKAROS, a craft I wrote about 2 months ago, unfurled its sails and successfully used the sun’s radiation pressure to propel the craft through space:
We’ve been following the progress of the Japanese spaceship IKAROS — the first to unfurl a solar sail in deep space. Today, the ship made the only first that really matters: it caught the sun’s rays with its 3,000 square-foot sail and successfully used the energy to speed its way through space.
Each photon of light exerts 0.0002 pounds of pressure on the 3,000-square-foot sail, and one after another they succeeded in propelling the nearly 700-pound drone. Japanese scientists expect to be able to control IKAROS’s velocity by adjusting the angle at which incoming radiation strikes the sails. For a full technical explanation of how the drone is moving, check out the Japanese space agency JAXA’s press release.
Solar sail technology is important because it allows spacecraft to travel without fuel, which could allow them to penetrate ever deeper into space.
This is probably one of the biggest advances in space technology we’ve seen in quite a long time. Solar sails have the potential to propel craft to speeds far beyond any of our current craft and rivalling even some of the theoretical nuclear craft. Of course there is still a long way to go until this can be used for larger craft (IKAROS is ~300kg) but the demonstration verifies that several key technologies function as expected and produce the required results. This success means there’s a good chance that the proposed larger solar sail craft will get the funding it needs to bring it into reality. I can’t wait to see what kinds of interesting missions solar sails will make possible.
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to write one of these starry eyed posts about space and I’ll be honest it feels good to be able to do it. Space is one of those things that I always find myself losing hours on and being able to share some of that wonder with an audience always gives me such a great feeling of accomplishment. I know one day, thanks to the achievements outlined here, that I’ll be able to venture into space and share in the impressive achievement that is humanity reaching out into space.
Interesting, if you turn the clock back a year it seems that I wrote a very similar post to this one, coincidence? Most likely
I just had to post this up:
That, my fellow space nuts, is White Knight Two (VMS Eve) carrying the very first SpaceShipTwo (VSS Enterprise) on its maiden voyage into the sky. The last time we saw something this momentous it was almost 7 years ago when the very first White Knight was carrying the first private sub-orbital vehicle SpaceShipOne into the sky. It’s been a long time coming and I’m sure that everyone at Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic are over the moon that they can write down this first 3 hour test flight as a success.
The media has lit up in response to seeing the iconic pair up in the air and with good reason, it signals the dawn of a new era for those who need (or want) cheap access to space. I’m not just talking about those of us who are after those 5 minutes of weightlessness and the spectacular view of our precious blue marble. No there’s another class of people who are excited about the prospect of cheap space access, scientists:
But this next generation of rockets from Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson’s effort with Space Ship 2, a model of which is pictured above), Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos from Amazon.com), and others will reach a height making a lot of this science possible. The region up to 100 km is too high to reach by balloon, and too low for orbital rockets, which is why it’s been dubbed “the ignorosphere”. But it has its uses…
Observations of the Sun, for example, may not need much time to do because (you may have noticed) the Sun is pretty bright, so a three or four minute flight is enough to get some good data. The way incoming energy from the Sun couples with the Earth’s atmosphere is not hugely well understood, and a lot of it happens in this region high above the planet’s surface. Effects of low gravity on the human body can be tested, as well as on plants and other biological systems.
In fact, enough science can be done on these trips that the conference itself brought in 250 people interested in the topic. I was surprised at how many people came, as were the conference planners themselves: they were expecting half that many.
In another post he also links to a video done by 2 scientists who are amongst those few who have already booked tickets on board SpaceShipTwo who explain exactly why this is such a big deal:
When I read those articles I was already convinced that cheap access to space was a good thing. Seeing SpaceShipTwo being carried up into the wild blue yonder just brought that all home and made me realise that we’re so close to having something that less than a decade ago was considered fantasy. There’s still many milestones to go before we get there but the clock is ticking down to the day when the first paid sub-orbital flights begin. After that it’s only a matter of time before we make the jump to orbital, and then the frontiers beyond.
If there’s one thing that gets me excited it is seeing news about space that makes it to Australian TV. I don’t watch that much television normally but I do catch the morning news before I head off to work for the day. So you can imagine my surprise when none other than Sir Richard Branson appeared on my TV showing off Burt Rutan’s latest creation of SpaceShipTwo. Whilst we’d known about White Knight Two for some time (and saw a couple videos of it flying around the place) the critical component was always missing. Today Sir Branson unveiled SpaceShipTwo for the first time, and it really couldn’t come any sooner:
MOJAVE, Calif. – It has been pre-sold as an “out of this world premiere” – and you can’t get more off-world than unveiling a spaceliner built to whisk customers to the edge of space.
SpaceShipTwo is making its debut here at about 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m. ET (5:30 – 6 p.m. PT) today. The super-slick looking rocket plane will be showcased as the world’s first passenger-carrying commercial spacecraft. The enterprise is under the financial wing of well-heeled U.K. billionaire and adventurer, Sir Richard Branson.
Branson created Virgin Galactic – billed as the world’s first commercial spaceline.
While there are few images of the completed craft floating around I can say that the short tour they did of SpaceShipTwo on the news this morning was spectacular. The renders it seems must have been pulled from the design files because the completed craft is almost identical to it’s 3D representation. Branson apparently wasn’t allowed to show the inside of the craft (due to FAA regulations apparently) but I’d also hazard a guess that the internals weren’t fully completed. The windows, for example, were completely blacked (well to be honest they looked painted on) out leading me to believe that they haven’t certified them yet. Still the first test flight is scheduled for tomorrow meaning that the majority of the flight hardware is in there, a significant milestone indeed.
Branson also let loose a few other interesting details. Firstly the next 18 months will be spent testing and verifying the craft’s capabilities. If this is going to be anything like the SpaceShipOne program they’ll do around 20 test flights the majority of which will be verifying the aerodynamic characteristics of the craft with about a quarter of them being powered flights to test the rocket engine and feathering system. 18 months is a fairly aggressive timeline for verification of a new craft but they’ve done this before so much of the groundwork is already laid, they just need to prove it will be safe enough for their paying customers.
And therein is the second tidbit of information that Branson let slip. There are already 300 customers who have paid the US$200,000 price tag for a flight and several thousand who paid a security deposit to secure a flight at a later date. Branson said several times that their main concern was reducing the costs to make space travel far more accessible and by the looks of it he has no shortage of early adopters who are willing to foot the bill. To really put his money where his mouth is his whole family will be going up on board the very first commercial flight, cementing his rhetoric in everyone’s minds.
Another fact which piqued my interest was the possibility of tiered flights. You see many people of varying age groups are going to want to use this service and they all have different physical capabilties. We all have an innate limit of how many g-forces we can take before blacking out and the comfort zone is well below that. For the majority of us the GLOC is between 4~6gs however this can be alleviated in 3 ways: changing the way you sit (like an astronaut laying down), applying the force gradually and wearing a special suit. Branson has mentioned all three of these characteristics before however today he mentioned that older people and those with medical conditions would still be able to fly aboard SpaceShipTwo however they wouldn’t be sent as high into space limiting any strain on their bodies. Its an interesting idea and definitely increases his potential market, but we’ll have to see how it pans out.
With this announcement Virgin Galactic has stepped out from the vaporware shadows that everyone had relegated them to. It’s an exciting time for commercial space travel with people like Branson creating the buzz that companies like SpaceX will be able to ride once their crafts are ready for human endeavours. The next 10 years are going to be extremely interesting as we see the rise of the new adventurers who dare to explore this final frontier.
Note: Just as I was about to hit the publish button on this article a friend of mine sent me this picture from the Space Fellowship:
My thanks to Danne for sending me that pic!