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 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!