Sub-Orbital Science Heating Up.

One of the major criticisms I often see leveled at the fledgling private space industry is that it focuses far too heavily on touristy sub-orbital junkets. When the total time spent in space is approximately 5 minutes I can see why critics are quick to jump to this conclusion as you wouldn’t think there would be a lot of experiments you could do in such a short time frame. Still as I’ve written previously there are many experiments that have been ignored for the longest time simply because they fall outside the normal parameters regular space missions and are impossible to reach with other equipment. Sub-orbital flights provide access to a region of space that’s been largely ignored due to this and with many private companies making headway into this field scientists are starting to line up for the chance to study the boundary of space.

Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has recently become extremely interested in the opportunity to conduct experiments in sub-orbital space. They’re quite a big player when it comes to space having been involved in many recent major discoveries so it comes as little surprise that they’d be amongst the first to line up for tickets into sub-orbital space. What caught me by surprise however was just how serious they are about it booking tickets not only with the current leader in sub-orbital flights but also securing spots on the as of yet unproven XCOR Lynx:

The California-based spaceflight company XCOR Aerospace has inked a deal to take scientists and their experiments on six flights to suborbital space on a two-seat space plane.

The Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a non-profit research organization, has purchased six trips aboard XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx vehicle, XCOR officials announced Thursday (Feb. 24). The Institute announced today (Feb. 28) that it also signed a deal with rival private spaceship company Virgin Galactic for rides aboard that firm’s SpaceShipTwo space plane.

These contracts mark a first for the resusable suborbital launch vehicle industry, officials said.

This shows that sub-orbital space is definitely not just a playground for rich tourists and presents many research opportunities for scientists to exploit. The initial payloads look pretty interesting too focusing on atmospheric imaging, biomedical modelling and studying planetary regolith in micro gravity. As the sub-orbital industry matures I’m sure there will be a bevy of experiments that will start to emerge, especially considering the relatively cheap access price that’s well within the bounds of many scientific grants.

Sub-orbital flights are the stepping stone to creating a fully fledged private space industry and the interest that’s been generated by both future tourists and scientists shows there’s demand for such services. Virgin Galactic has gone on record in the past stating that should SpaceShipTwo prove to be successful the next incarnation will be a fully orbital ship. Couple that with companies like Bigelow Aerospace and we’ve already got the beginnings of a future where space travel is part of everyday life, just like air travel has become. Sure we’re still decades away from realizing anything like that but such a dream just keeps becoming more and more realistic everyday and I can’t tell you how excited that makes me.

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