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.
Getting off the rock which we’re gravitationally bound to is an expensive endeavor, so much so that doing it has well been out of the reach of anyone but the super-governments of the world for almost half a century. We’re in the middle of a space revolution with private companies popping up everywhere promising to reduce the cost of access to space with many of them delivering on their promises. Still even with so many revolutions happening in the private space industry the cost of doing so is still well out of the reach of the vast majority of people in the world, even though they’ve come down by an order of magnitude in the past decade.
Still there are people working on extremely novel solutions to this problem and they’re starting to show some very promising results. Late last year I wrote about Copenhagen Suborbitals a volunteer team that is working on a single person rocket using only donated funds. Back then they were gearing up to launch their first test rocket called HEAT from their sea launch platform that was propelled by a submarine that one of its creators built. Unfortunately they did not manage to launch as the cryogenic valve for the liquefied oxygen had frozen shut (thanks to the hair dryer they used as a heater draining the batteries on the sub) preventing the rocket from igniting. They were determined to launch it however and just recently they gave it another attempt.
The upgraded rocket, dubbed HEAT-1X, has a few improvements over its previous incarnation. The sea launch platform is now a fully enclosed unit, no longer requiring external propulsion from a submarine to get it into position. HEAT-1X now uses a polyurethane rubber mix instead of the previously used paraffin wax which was found to not vaporize completely which caused a reduction in the resulting amount of thrust. With these improvements in mind they attempted launching again back on the 3rd of June, and the results speak for themselves:
The launch, whilst undoubtedly a success for all involved, wasn’t without its share of problems. HEAT-1X did manage to achieve supersonic speed however it deviated from its direct vertical flight path considerably. Even though they were out in the ocean mission control decided to shut down the engine after 21 seconds of flight. The craft still managed to achieve a height of approximately 2.8KM in that time and covered over 8KM in ground distance. There was successful separation of the booster and craft stages however the parachute on the booster was torn free due to the high drag it experienced. The space craft’s parachutes didn’t unfurl properly either causing it to receive significant damage upon landing. Unfortunately the booster was lost to the Baltic Sea but the capsule was recovered successfully.
Despite those problems the HEAT-1X flight represents a tremendous step forward for the Copenhagen Suborbitals team and shows that they are quite capable of building a craft capable of delivering people into suborbital space. They’re still a long way from putting a person in one of their crafts (3~5 years is their estimate) but this launch validates much of the work they have done to this point. I really can’t wait to see them achieve their vision of getting someone into space on a shoestring budget and should they succeed they will make Denmark the fourth nation ever to launch a man into space (Russia, USA and China were ahead of them, if you were wondering). Considering that it will all be done with volunteer time and donations make the achievement even more incredible and I’m sure they’re inspiring many of their younger Danes to pursue a life in the sciences and engineering.
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.
It seemed like last year was the year of the space shysters with a fair few questionable companies coming out of no where and making large claims about putting people into space. I launched a volley of blogtastic skepticism at a few of the more vocal ones who have consequently not reared their heads again since their initial press flurry. Still there was a lot of progress since then with SpaceShipTwo making its debut and SpaceX successfully launching its Falcon 1 twice into orbit around earth. This year however hasn’t seen anyone else attempt to make a splash in the private space market, that was until now.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the majority of people reading this blog will be familiar with the name John Carmack. For those who aren’t he’s somewhat of a game industry legend having being involved in the computer games industry for well over 20 years and his fame was made with such classic titles as Commander Keen, Doom and Quake. He’s well respected as being extremely talented and dedicated to the games that he produces, something that seems to have disappeared from so many game companies once they hit the big time. About 10 years ago after getting tired of turbo charging Ferraris¹ he set up a company called Armadillo Aerospace and set about developing rocket technologies in much the same fashion as he did developing game. He also went up against Scaled Composites for the Ansari X-Prize, albeit with about 10% of their budget.
For the most part though they’ve kept from making any broad media statements and have spent much of their time developing their lunar lander vehicles. The past 2 years have seen them win 2 prizes in the Nothrop Gruman Lunar Lander Challenge and they’ve been heavily involved in the new extreme sport called the Rocket Racing League. You’d then be forgiven for thinking that they’d given up on the aspirations that they once held when they were competing for the X-prize competition because really, nothing they’ve said or done thus far has shown any progress towards putting people into space.
You can then imagine my surprised when this little gem turned up in my feed reader:
Space Adventures is going to use an Armadillo Technologies rocket to launch amateur astronauts 62 miles into the sky. Nothing new, except that they will do it for half the price of Virgin Galactic‘s ticket, and in a real rocket!
Yes, an actual rocket launching vertically, not a glorified spaceplane like SpaceShipTwo. A real rocket, launched vertically. Clear the tower, godspeed, and all that. You know, like the real astronauts with the right stuff in the right places. And then, five minutes on the edge of space, and down you go. Almost like Alan Shepard in his Freedom 7—but hopefully with a lot less Gs—instead of playing a snob version of Chuck Yeager in Rutan’s spaceplane.
Before I rip into Diaz for being an ignorant jerk I just want to say how awesome this development is. If you take a look at some of the videos of the Armadillo craft in action (aaahhhh ignore this one) you’ll see why it will be so impressive to have these guys lifting people into space. Their crafts are very well designed and you can see the control software at work, vectoring the thrust ever so slightly to keep the entire craft upright and level. It’s akin to balancing a broomstick on your hand, except on the other end of the broom there’s about a ton of spacecraft and enough explosives to make even the most recluse pyromaniacs giddy.
There’s also the design of the craft to consider, it’s a Vertical Take Vertical Landing (VTVL) craft. For those who’ve gone into space there’s usually only 2 ways to get back down: you glide back ala SpaceShipOne and the Shuttle or you plummet like a rock with a special set of parachutes to stop you, landing either at sea (much more comfortable) or on land. Armadillo’s craft however will use its rockets² to do what’s called a soft landing, firing them several times to slow down and then using them to hover slowly down for landing. Using rockets to land really hasn’t been done on Earth because well, the lovely thick atmosphere that we have is quite apt at slowing you down. Additionally if you’re going to soft land you need to carry the required fuel to land with you up into orbit. As well all know weight is king in space endeavours and the less weight you can take up with you the better.
Then there’s the price, $102,000. Whilst that’s being spruiked as half the cost of a flight on SpaceShipTwo it neatly ignores the fact that both of those are intial prices. Branson and Rutan have both said on numerous occasions that those prices would come down over time and their target price was somewhere in the $10~20,000 region. Of course that price won’t be met for quite a long time but after the initial round of 200 flights they stated the cost would come down to $100,000, equivalent to Armadillo’s price. The good news is that with 2 very serious competitors vying for the sub-orbital space tourism industry us as the consumers will ultimately win out with cheaper prices, bringing a trip into space into the realm of the everyman.
Don’t think I forgot about you Diaz. What, pray tell, do you think are the requirements for something to be a rocket? Because for both SpaceShipOne and the Armadillo craft both of them are rockets, no question. The only difference between them is the propellant they use with one being nitrous oxide and rubber and the other some liquid (probably LOX/kerosene). Is the difference then that you’re launched from the ground rather than a captive carry plane? Pffft don’t get me started, since the current American space program owes its success to the X-15 experiments which were done in almost exactly the same way as SpaceShipOne. It doesn’t matter how you cross that line in the sand that we’ve called space, you won’t really be an astronaut on either (you’ll be a spaceflight participant), unless of course you’re the one actually flying it (doubt it buddy).You might think that SpaceShipOne is a snob spacecraft but the facts remains, it’s a rocket and it pays more homage to the true roots of space travel than you care to be aware of.
If there’s something that gets me excited it’s when talented people, like those at Armadillo Aerospace, announce that they’re going to do something as ambitious as putting people into space. It speaks volumes that despite the economic disasters that plagued our world that the current generation of space pioneers have not lost sight of their end goals. The next decade is going to be one of a revolution in the realm of private space activities and every piece of news like this just makes me ever more confident that one day space travel will become as common for the everyman as taking a plane.
Of course we’ll have to have spaceport security then, but I’d be willing to put up with that after spending a glorious few minutes floating above our beautiful earth 🙂
¹I don’t have a link for this quote but I can distinctly remember an interview where he said he needed something more exciting than buying a Ferrari and turbo charging it. At the time I hated him for the statement (young and jealous at the time!) but if I was in the same situation I’d be doing pretty much the same thing.
² I’m trying to find an official source for the VTVL capability of this craft but I’m coming up blank. Looking at the design it’s pretty clear that this thing is designed to land “ass first” and there doesn’t seem to be anyone saying that it will use parachutes to come back to earth. The closest I have so far is this Slashdot comment, but I’d be much happier if I could get some official word on how their craft plans to land on terra firma.
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.