Care For an Orbit or 8, my Dear?

Take any emerging industry and you’ll always find companies who blast into the market claiming that they have the technology to compete with the big guys. Sometimes this turns out to be true as we’ve seen many a garage based business turn into multi-billion dollar gambits. Granted a lot of these things are a lot easier when the capital required to get the thing going is minimal (Anyone could start a google rival for less than a $1000, whether people would use it or not is another question) so when it comes to things like the emerging private space industry the fly-by-nighters have been few and far between. It also hasn’t stopped some companies who’ve apparently been in the game for years from attempting the same thing:

Mojave, California-based Interorbital Systems (IOS) announced Saturday that it is developing a two-person orbital crew module as an addition to its orbital tourism operations to loft in late 2011 aboard the company’s modular NEPTUNE 1000 rocket.

Two Interorbital Systems test pilots—Nebojsa Stanojevic, a ‘Tweeting’ Serbian, and Miroslav Ambrus-Kis, [vid], a ‘Tweeting’ Croatian, both of whom are seasoned explorers, will be aboard the NEPTUNE 1000 spacecraft. The test pilots are also a part of the Synergy Moon Team for the Google Lunar X-Prize.

Interorbital Systems, that’s a new name to me but they’ve been around for almost 13 years. Their mainstay appears to be sounding rockets which are small payload vehicles designed for sub-orbital junkets. They were apparently a competitor for the Ansari X-Prize although I never saw anything from them. A quick search turns up their concept for a vehicle called Solaris X which they’ve classified as a rocket plane. I’ll forgive the liberal use of the name plane here (since you know planes have wings and all) but the fact that the only pictures I can find of it are renders and no test hardware shows that they can’t have been too serious about it. Especially when you consider Scaled Composites who had several public flight tests of their hardware long before they won the X-Prize.

But let’s not dwell on the past, these guys are promising us rides into orbit for the princely sum of $800,000 per passenger. It’s 4 times the initial cost of Virigin Galactic’s flights into space but I’ll be honest the prospect of spending 12 hours in orbit vs 5 minutes would definitely worth the price difference. But it’s that price difference that first triggered my bullshit detector, and my subsequent investigation into their launch technology has unfortunately brought me to a more bleak conclusion than my first reaction had.

What they are developing is a new launch system called NEPTUNE, which they’re touting as a modular launch system. In essence that sounds like a cool idea, need more payload into orbit? Slap on a couple more common propulsion modules. However looking at their design brings up a couple points that make me concerned about this system being viable, especially when it conjures up memories of launch systems past.

Neptune 1000 assembly Plume 1 Ocean Background Insert 1 X Logos 1 NB Small

It’s a radical design with a total of 33 engines on the bottom. Does it remind you of anything? In a previous blog post I detailed the Soviet moonshot and their failed heavy lift booster the N1. If you follow the link and look at the bottom of that ill fated rocket you’ll notice that it has 30 engines in the first stage. Many of the problems the rocket encountered was trying to get all the motors to fire synchronously and whilst the NEPTUNE 1000 won’t be firing all of them at once they will be attempting to fire 24 for the initial boost. They site the many successes of the Soyuz class of rockets on their site, probably as an attempt to disarm critics like myself, but they also fail to mention that the majority of other launch systems use far fewer engines synchronously (and for good reason to). Additionally the NEPTUNE 1000 uses parallel staging which means that unlike most traditional launch systems which shed their stages the NEPTUNE will be carrying them all up with them, reducing the payload. I could be wrong though but their current design doesn’t appear to lend itself to shedding the excess weight of spent stages however.

I won’t comment too much on their space capsule but suffice to say when they’re working on a budget of about 1000kg for 2 passengers, life support for 12 hours and re-entry shielding I’m not too confident that they can do it. Even the Gemini capsules were over 3000kg.

I love the idea, I really do. Anything that can lower the barrier to space is something worth pursuing. However like any emerging industry we’re plagued with those who make grandiose claims and never deliver. For now Interorbital is in my vaporware category but I’ll happily buy a ride from them should they ever actually launch something.

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