Virgin Galactic has finished yet another stepping-stone to its first commercial spaceflight. The New Mexico-based company sent SpaceShipTwo aloft on a test of the re-entry system Oct. 7, making a safe landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
The company is among a handful of firms competing to bring well-heeled tourists into suborbital space. There are more than 700 people signed up to take a flight on SpaceShipTwo, with tickets running at $250,000 per seat. The spacecraft is put into the air using a carrier aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo, then separates for a brief flight in space. Exact timing for the first flight has not been disclosed yet, but it is expected to be in the coming months.
“SpaceShipTwo is safely back on the ground after her 54th test flight, including her tenth test of the feather system,” wrote Virgin Galactic in a tweet yesterday (Oct. 7). “Coupled with several good, full duration ground tests of SS2’s rocket motor in recent weeks, today’s flight brings spaceflight closer.”
It’s been a long road to space for Virgin Galactic, which last week commemorated the 10th anniversary of the predecessor prototype spacecraft (SpaceShipOne) making a second flight into suborbital space Oct. 4, 2004, to win the Ansari X-Prize — the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight in 1961.
The spacecraft was built by Scaled Composites and today is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan subsequently designed SpaceShipTwo, but has since retired.
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has pushed back the first spaceflight of the new spacecraft several times over the years. In recent statements he has said he was hoping the spacecraft would be ready early next year, but in an NBC news report from last week he simply said SpaceShipTwo is “on the verge” of starting flights.
More pictures from yesterday’s test flight are below.
EDIT Oct. 8, 12:14 p.m. EDT: This article has been amended at XCOR’s request to remove a reference to a specific deal.
Ready, set … launch? That’s what XCOR is hoping to accomplish as the company continues building its Lynx spacecraft prototype.
The company announced this week that it has mated the cockpit to the fuselage on the prototype — which they classify as a major milestone in construction. Check out pictures of the team at work below.
“The team at XCOR has been working a long time to reach this goal,” stated XCOR CEO Jeff Greason. “We always knew there would be a day when we could see a spacecraft forming in our hangar. Today is that day. These pictures show our ongoing journey to make commercial space flight a reality.”
The company is also testing Lynx’s propulsion system and is starting to bond other components together to the spacecraft prototype, such as the landing gear.
Well, technically not space*, but suborbital, and that’d still be way cool! And what’s even cooler is that you can enter to win a trip on an XCOR Lynx Mark II suborbital flight while helping to support a good cause of your choice, courtesy of The Urgency Network’s “Ticket to Rise” campaign. Check out the dramatic spaceflight-packed promotional video and find out how to enter below:
The Urgency Network is an online platform whereby participants can win experience-based prizes by participating in campaigns that are designed to aid and support good causes, many of which assist specific communities in need, awareness groups, and conservation efforts. You earn “entries” for prize drawings by purchasing gift packages from the participating foundations or by donating time, social media presence, or money directly. It’s a way for organizations that might not have (or be able to afford) a large PR department to get funded and gain widespread exposure. Learn more about The Urgency Network here.
In the Ticket to Rise campaign, the grand prize is beyond stratospheric — literally! One lucky winner will experience a ride aboard an XCOR Lynx Mark II suborbital craft, a single-stage space vehicle that takes off from a runway to ultimately coast briefly at a maximum altitude of 328,000 feet (about 100 km), experiencing 4 minutes of microgravity before re-entry and a runway landing. It’s a supersonic 30-minute flight to the very edge of space!
(*Actually, 100 km is right at the von Karman line, so riding the Lynx Mark II past that could qualify you as an astronaut. Just sayin’.)
Add to that you’d be helping any one of dozens of good causes (you can choose from different ones by clicking the “Select a Different NonProfit” text link on the donation page) and it’s a win-win for everyone. And even if you don’t get a seat aboard a spaceship (many will enter, few will win) you can still get some pretty awesome promo offers from the organizations as bulk-entry packages.
The deadline to enter the campaign is 11:59:59 p.m. EDT August 11, 2014. Drawing will be held on August 12. The Lynx flight is dependent on meeting all requirements and passing physical exams and tests by XCOR Aerospace, and although the date is expected to be in the fall of 2015, this is rocket science and things change. Read the official contest rules for all details, fine print, etc.
As Virgin Galactic aims for a spaceflight this year, founder Richard Branson is asking the public to help track down the kid (now an adult) who prompted him to start the company 26 years ago.
Above you can see a Virgin video showing an 1988 clip from an old BBC show called “Going Live!” Branson answered a question from a young fan, Shihan Musafer, asking if he’d go to space. Of course, you all know what his answer was.
“After that call, I set about registering the name Virgin Galactic,” Branson wrote in a blog post. “We’d love to track down Shihan to say a personal thank you for helping to inspire the idea with that phone call. We want to offer Shihan the chance to join Virgin Galactic as a VIP guest to witness a spaceflight.”
If you have any information, Branson encourages you to tweet @richardbranson and @virgingalactic with the hashtag #shihanmusafer. (Early results on Twitter show a lot of retweets and few ideas of how to find him.) Meanwhile, his company has been busy putting SpaceShipTwo through its paces, making powered test flights — such as this one you can see from January.
The issue of “what to wear?” takes on an extra dimension of life and death when it comes to space travel. Upon exiting a spacecraft on a spacewalk, an astronaut becomes his very own personal satellite in orbit about the Earth and must rely on the flimsy layer of his suit to provide them with a small degree of protection from radiation and extreme fluctuations of heat and cold.
We recently had a chance to see the past, present and future of space suit technology in the Smithsonian Institutions’ touring Suited for Space exhibit currently on display at the Tampa Bay History Center in Tampa, Florida.
Tampa Bay History Center Director of Marketing Manny Leto recently gave Universe Today an exclusive look at the traveling display. If you think you know space suits, Suited for Space will show you otherwise, as well as give you a unique perspective on a familiar but often overlooked and essential piece of space hardware. And heck, it’s just plain fascinating to see the design and development of some of these earlier suits as well as videos and stills of astronauts at work – and yes, sometimes even at play – in them.
One of the highlights of the exhibit are some unique x-ray images of iconic suits from space travel history. Familiar suits become new again in these images by Smithsonian photographer Mark Avino, which includes a penetrating view of Neil Armstrong’s space suit that he wore on Apollo 11.
Space suits evolved from pressure suits developed for high-altitude flights in the 1950’s, and Suited for Space traces that progression. It was particularly interesting to see the depiction of Wiley Post’s 1934 suit, complete with steel cylindrical helmet and glass portal! Such early suits resembled diving bell suits of yore — think Captain Nemo in a chemsuit. Still, this antiquated contraption was the first practical full pressure suit that functioned successfully at over 13,000 metres altitude.
No suit that has been into space is allowed to tour due to the fragility of many historic originals that are now kept at the Smithsonian, though several authentic suits used in training during the U.S. space program are on display. We thought it was interesting to note how the evolution of the spacesuit closely followed the development of composites and materials through the mid-20th century. You can see the progression from canvas, glass and steel in the early suits right up though the advent of the age of plastic and modern fabrics. Designs have flirted with the idea of rigid and semi-rigid suits before settling on the modern day familiar white astronaut suit.
Spacesuit technology has also always faced the ultimate challenge of protecting an astronaut from the rigors of space during Extra-Vehicular Activity, or EVA.
Cosmonaut Alexey Leonov performed the first 12 minute space walk during Voskhod 2 back in 1965, and NASA astronaut Ed White became the first American to walk in space on Gemini 4 just months later. Both space walkers had issues with over-heating, and White nearly didn’t make it back into his Gemini capsule.
Designing a proper spacesuit was a major challenge that had to be overcome. In 1962, Playtex (yes THAT Playtex) was awarded a contract to develop the suits that astronauts would wear on the Moon. Said suits had 13 distinct layers and weighed 35 kilograms here on Earth. The Playtex industrial division eventually became known as the International Latex Corporation or ILC Dover, which still makes spacesuits for ISS crewmembers today. It’s also fascinating to see some of the alternate suits proposed, including one “bubble suit” with arms and legs (!) that was actually tested but, thankfully, was never used.
These suits were used by astronauts on the Moon, to repair Hubble, build the International Space Station and much more. Al Worden recounts performing the “most distant EVA ever” on the return from the Moon in his book Falling to Earth. This record will still stand until the proposed asteroid retrieval mission in the coming decade, which will see astronauts performing the first EVA ever in orbit around Earth’s Moon.
And working in a modern spacesuit during an EVA is anything but routine. CSA Astronaut Chris Hadfield said in his recent book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth that “Spacewalking is like rock climbing, weightlifting, repairing a small engine and performing an intricate pas de deux – simultaneously, while encased in a bulky suit that’s scraping your knuckle, fingertips and collarbone raw.”
And one only has to look at the recent drama that cut ESA astronaut Luca Parmitamo’s EVA short last year to realize that your spacesuit is the only thin barrier that exists between yourself and the perils of space.
“We’re delighted to host our first Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Service (SITES) and we think that Florida’s close ties to NASA and the space program make it a great fit for us,” said Rodney Kite-Powell, the Tampa Bay History Center’s Saunders Foundation Curator of History.
Be sure to catch this fascinating exhibit coming to a city near you!
-Here’s the schedule for Suited for Space Exhibit tour.
-Astronaut Nicole Stott (veteran of STS-128, -129, -133, & ISS Expeditions 20 and 21) will also be on hand at the Tampa Bay History Center on March 2014 (Date to be Announced) to present Suited for Space: An Astronaut’s View.
In true Richard Branson flair, the founder of Virgin Galactic has a multimedia plan in place for when he and his adult children, Holly and Sam, take the first planned tourist spaceflight next year. Virgin Galactic and NBCUniversal signed a “multi-platform partnership” for the network’s affiliates to transmit the flight all over the place.
Disclosed platforms so far include CNBC, MSNBC, NBCNews.com, Syfy and The Weather Channel. They also plan a “primetime special” on NBC on the launch’s eve, and to host a live event for three hours on NBC’s Today show. Financial terms were not released.
“Virgin Galactic is thrilled that NBCUniversal will join us on our exciting first journey to space,” stated Branson. “In this first chapter of commercial space travel, we will help make space accessible and inspire countless more people to join us in the pursuit of space exploration and science innovation.”
Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo is in the midst of powered flight tests and the company has hundreds of people signed up for flights. The company is one of several American contenders to run space tourism flights regularly, with XCOR Aerospace and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin among the most cited competitors.
Call it Space Survivor. Thirteen years after that now-classic desert island nightmare premiered on NBC, the executive producer behind Survivor is planning to host another reality competition that will land the winner a rocket trip to space.
We don’t know yet what feats of strength, endurance, intelligence or teamwork (or is that backstabbing?) will be needed to score a trip with Virgin Galactic. A press release simply promises a “groundbreaking, elimination competition series where everyday people compete for the ultimate prize”, but we sure hope a lot of the individual contests are space-related.
“For the past 10 years I have relentlessly pursued my dream of using a TV show to give an everyday person the chance to experience the black sky of space and look down upon mother Earth,” stated executive producer Mark Burnett, who heads One Three Media. Burnett seems to have chosen the Richard Branson-backed SpaceShipTwo (now doing powered flight tests) as the best chance of getting competitors into space in the near future.
“Last year, I spent time in New Mexico at the state-of-the-art facility and last week [I] spent time in the Mojave desert with Sir Richard and his impressive team. We got to see the spaceship up close and hear of Sir Richard’s incredible vision of how Virgin Galactic is the future of private space travel. I am thrilled to be part of a series that will give the everyday person a chance to see space, and that NBC has come on board too so that viewers at home will have a first-class seat.”
Virgin says its first spaceflight with SpaceShipTwo will be in 2014, and soon after it will open the manifest to the more than 600 folks who have purchased tickets.
As for when we’ll expect to see Space Race hit the airwaves, let’s just caution that this is just an agreement so far and nothing firm has been decided.
Recall that in 2000, Burnett announced another deal with NBC to host a space reality show (Destination Mir), with the winner visiting the Russian space station Mir. That idea fell apart when the cash-strapped Russian Federal Space Agency elected to deorbit the aging station in 2001 and focus its resources on the International Space Station.
Burnett subsequently proposed another show that would have brought ‘N Sync guitarist Lance Bass to the International Space Station, but that idea never got off the ground.
Is that the smell of rocket fuel in the air, or customer excitement?
The reported 600+ customers waiting in line for a trip to space aboard SpaceShipTwo (nickname: Enterprise) surely must have been excited when the suborbital spaceship successfully sailed through another powered flight test today (Thursday).
“SS2 has successfully completed another supersonic rocket-powered test flight! Hit our planned duration, altitude, and speed,” Virgin Galactic wrote on Twitter.
Watch the video of the flight below:
SpaceShipTwo also tested a “feathering” system that it has on board to assist with controlled re-entry. It allows the entire tail of the spaceship to rotate up to about 65 degrees, which Virgin says allows fine control of the attitude as the spacecraft comes back to Earth. “The feather configuration is also highly stable, effectively giving the pilot a hands-free re-entry capability, something that has not been possible on spacecraft before,” Virgin said of the system on its website.
The test, which started at about 8 a.m. Mojave time, saw the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft take off from the Mojave Air and Space Port carrying SpaceShipTwo underneath. At 46,000 feet, pilots Mark Stucky and Clint Nichols released their spacecraft from the carrier and turned on the rocket motor for a 20-second burn. They climbed as high as 69,000 feet at a maximum speed of Mach 1.43, or 1.43 times the speed of sound.
“The main progress with this test is that we deployed the full expansion (up and down) of the feather mechanism at a high altitude, alongside testing the rocket motor performance,” wrote Virgin founder Richard Branson on his blog. “This feather mechanism was the key innovation that enabled us to get into the space program in the first place. It acts like a giant shuttlecock and slows the spaceship up as it comes back into the earth’s atmosphere.”
Branson also described Thursday’s test — the second powered flight for SpaceShipTwo, which did its first in April — as “the highest commercial winged vehicle [flight] in history.”
Astronauts, start your rover engines. Two astronauts recently remote-controlled a rover vehicle in California from their perch on the International Space Station — about 250 miles (400 kilometers) overhead.
The concept is cool in itself, but NASA has loftier aims. It’s thinking about those moon and asteroid and Mars human missions that the agency would really like to conduct one day, if it receives the money and authorization.
Potentially, say, you could have a Mars crew using rovers to explore as much of the surface as possible in a limited time.
Mars Curiosity and its predecessor rovers have found amazing things on Mars, but the challenge is the average 20-minute delay in communications between Mars and Earth. NASA deftly accounts for this problem through techniques such as hazard avoidance software so that Curiosity, say, wouldn’t crash into a big Martian boulder. (More techniques from NASA at this link.) But having astronauts above the surface would cut down on the time delay and potentially change Mars rover driving forever.
So about that test: two astronauts so far have run the K10 planetary vehicle prototype around a “Roverscape” at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. NASA calls these runs the “first fully-interactive remote operation of a planetary rover by an astronaut in space.”
Expedition 36’s Chris Cassidy was first up on June 15, spending three hours moving the machine around in the rock-strewn area, which is about the size of two football fields. Then his crewmate Luca Parmitano took a turn on July 26, going so far as to deploy a simulated radio antenna. Another test session should take place in August.
“Whereas it is common practice in undersea exploration to use a joystick and have direct control of remote submarines, the K10 robots are more intelligent,” stated Terry Fong, human exploration telerobotics project manager at Ames.
“Astronauts interact with the robots at a higher level, telling them where to go, and then the robot itself independently and intelligently figures out how to safely get there,” added Fong, who is also director of Ames’ intelligent robotics group.
These tests also showcase a couple of technical firsts:
NASA is testing a Robot Application Programming Interface Delegate (RAPID) robot data messaging system to control the robot from space, essentially working to strip down the information to the bare essentials to make communication as easy as possible. (RAPID has been tested before, but never in this way.)
The agency is also using its Ensemble software in space for telerobotics for the first time. It describes this as “open architecture for the development, integration and deployment of mission operations software.”
The next time that American astronauts launch to space from American soil it will surely be aboard one of the new commercially built “space taxis” currently under development by a trio of American aerospace firms – Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp – enabled by seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).
Boeing has moved considerably closer towards regaining America’s lost capability to launch humans to space when the firm’s privately built CST-100 crew capsule achieved two key new milestones on the path to blastoff from Florida’s Space Coast.
The CST-100 capsule is designed to carry a crew of up to 7 astronauts on missions to low-Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS) around the middle of this decade.
Boeing’s crew transporter will fly to space atop the venerable Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance (ULA) from Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The Boeing and ULA teams recently completed the first wind tunnel tests of a 7 percent scale model of the integrated capsule and Atlas V rocket (photo above) as well as thrust tests of the modified Centaur upper stage.
The work is being done under the auspices of NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative, intended to make commercial human spaceflight services available for both US government and commercial customers, such as the proposed Bigelow Aerospace mini space station.
Since its maiden liftoff in 2002, the ULA Atlas V rocket has flawlessly launched numerous multi-billion dollar NASA planetary science missions like the CuriosityMars rover, Juno Jupiter orbiter and New Horizons mission to Pluto as well as a plethora of top secret Air Force spy satellites.
But the two stage Atlas V has never before been used to launch humans to space – therefore necessitating rigorous testing and upgrades to qualify the entire vehicle and both stages to meet stringent human rating requirements.
“The Centaur has a long and storied past of launching the agency’s most successful spacecraft to other worlds,” said Ed Mango, NASA’s CCP manager at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Because it has never been used for human spaceflight before, these tests are critical to ensuring a smooth and safe performance for the crew members who will be riding atop the human-rated Atlas V.”
The combined scale model CST-100 capsule and complete Atlas V rocket were evaluated for two months of testing this spring inside an 11- foot diameter transonic wind tunnel at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.
“The CST-100 and Atlas V, connected with the launch vehicle adaptor, performed exactly as expected and confirmed our expectations of how they will perform together in flight,” said John Mulholland, Boeing vice president and program manager for Commercial Programs.
Testing of the Centaur stage centered on characterizing the flow of liquid oxygen from the oxygen tank through the liquid oxygen-feed duct line into the pair of RL-10 engines where the propellant is mixed with liquid hydrogen and burned to create thrust to propel the CST-100 into orbit.
Boeing is aiming for an initial three day manned orbital test flight of the CST-100 during 2016, says Mulholland.
But that date is dependent on funding from NASA and could easily be delayed by the ongoing sequester which has slashed NASA’s and all Federal budgets.
Chris Ferguson, the commander of the final shuttle flight (STS-135) by Atlantis, is leading Boeing’s flight test effort.
Boeing has leased one of NASA’s Orbiter Processing Facility hangers (OPF-3) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for the manufacturing and assembly of its CST-100 spacecraft.
Mulholland told me previously that Boeing will ‘cut metal’ soon. “Our first piece of flight design hardware will be delivered to KSC and OPF-3 around mid 2013.”
NASA’s CCP program is fostering the development of the CST-100 as well as the SpaceX Dragon and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser to replace the crew capability of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters.
The Atlas V will also serve as the launcher for the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser space taxi.
Since the forced retirement of NASA’s shuttle fleet in 2011, US and partner astronauts have been 100% reliant on the Russians to hitch a ride to the ISS aboard the Soyuz capsules – at a price tag exceeding $60 Million per seat.
Simultaneously on a parallel track NASA is developing the Orion crew capsule and SLS heavy lift booster to send humans to the Moon and deep space destinations including Asteroids and Mars.
And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013