Google Exec Hands Silicon Valley the Stratospheric Jump Record

Just a little over two years since Felix Baumgartner broke USAF Colonel Joseph Kittinger’s stratospheric jump record, Alan Eustace from Google has independently smashed the high altitude skydiving record again. This brings home to Silicon Valley a record that might stand for a while. Eustace took a minimalist approach to the jump. His setup involved a helium filled balloon and just him hanging from the balloon in a spacesuit. Pure and simple, this permitted his system to reach 135,890 feet above the Earth, over 41 kilometers altitude, exceeding Baumgartner’s record by 7000 feet.

The simple design of his balloon launch might remind one of a bungy jump. This one maxed out at 822 mph and created a sonic boom. How can anyone break his record now? Can someone rise to a higher altitude? What is next for the Google high flyers? Will Baumgartner take this as a challenge to retake the record?

Balloon preparations for Alan Eustace's record flight at the Roswell airport in the early morning hours of Ocotber 24, 2014. (Credit: Paragon Space Development Corporation)
Balloon preparations for Alan Eustace’s record flight at the Roswell airport in the early morning hours of October 24, 2014. (Credit: Paragon Space Development Corporation)

The 57 year old Alan Eustace is a Senior Vice President at Google in its Knowledge department. He is a licensed pilot but not known for undertaking extraordinary feats of daredevil. Eustace grew up in Florida and recalls that his childhood was filled with trips to Cape Canaveral for NASA launches. Not a spur of the moment undertaking, Eustace had dreamt of accomplishing this feat and record for some time.

This is the third successful balloon skydiving jump from over 100,000 feet. All three have been accomplished from Roswell, New Mexico. Kittinger’s was in 1961, Baumgartner in 2012, and now Eustace in 2014. A fourth jump was undertaken in 1966 from a height of 123,000 feet but ended in failure and the death of the skydiver, Nicholas Piantanida.

The trip to the upper heights of the atmosphere took two hours. All this time he was forced to hang very still to avoid over-heating. His spacesuit had minimal ability to cool his body during the ascent. While the stratosphere reaches temperatures of 100 below zero, the atmosphere is exceedingly thin and body heat has no way to radiate away.

Eustace as he appeared in the first moments of his ascent. He maintained this posture throughout the 2 hour flight. (Credit: Paragon Space Development Corporation)
Eustace as he appeared in the first moments of his ascent. He maintained this posture throughout the 2 hour flight. (Credit: Paragon Space Development Corporation)

Without a capsule like Baumgartner and Kittinger before him, he relied solely on a spacesuit custom built by Paragon Space Development Corporation, a designer of life support devices. The simple design exceeded Baumgartner by over 7000 feet, nearly a mile and a half more. Eustace’s new record is approaching the maximum that has ever been achieved by any lighter than air craft, manned or unmanned.

The unmanned high altitude record for balloon flight was set in 2002 from Sanriku Balloon Center at Ofunato City, Iwate in Japan. This record stands at 173,900 feet. So there is plenty of room for record breaking but it will require pushing the limits of technology. In this day and age, there are many keen to push technological limits.

Alan Eustace now joins Google execs in high profile flight. H211 L.L.C. operates a Dornier Alpha Jet, owned and used by Mr. Page, Mr. Brin and the chief executive, Eric Schmidt, since 2007. The Alpha Jet is seen being taxiied on the Moffett field runway in Mountain View, CA. Insets show an Alpha in flight and Hangar One (a former Dirigble hangar from the 1930s) which H211 is planning to refurbish for NASA and to house their fleet of jets including the Alpha. (Credit: U.T./TRR)
Alan Eustace now joins Google execs in high profile flight. H211 L.L.C. operates a Dornier Alpha Jet, owned and used by Mr. Page, Mr. Brin, and the chief executive, Eric Schmidt, since 2007. The Alpha Jet is seen taxiing on the Moffett field tarmac in Mountain View, CA. Insets show an Alpha in flight and Hangar One (a former Dirigible hangar from the 1930s) which H211 is planning to refurbish for NASA and to house their fleet of jets including the Alpha. (Credit: U.T./TRR)

Google execs are no strangers to high flying. At Moffett Field in Mountain View, California, just a couple of miles from executive headquarters of Google, a small group of executives utilize a German made Dornier Alpha jet. Collaboratively with NASA Ames, the jet is flown by the execs and other experienced pilots to study the upper atmosphere and quite possibly to take in the views around the San Francisco bay area. They are often seen making touch n’ go’s at Moffett to maintain skills and certification. Google, the corporation, clearly showed its interest in space applications with the purchase of Skybox, a microsatellite builder, in June of this year for a reported $500 million.

Reference:

Paragon StratEx Team

Bigelow Inflatable Module to be Added to Space Station in 2015

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are going to be getting an addition in the near future, and in the form of an inflatable room no less. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is the first privately-built space habitat that will added to the ISS, and it will be transported into orbit aboard a Space X Falcon 9 rocket sometime next year.

“The BEAM is one small step for Bigelow Aerospace,” Bigelow representative Michael Gold told Universe Today, “but is also one giant leap for private sector space activities since the BEAM will be the first privately owned and developed module ever to be part of a crewed system in space.”

Continue reading “Bigelow Inflatable Module to be Added to Space Station in 2015”

Touchdown! Virgin Spacecraft Prototype Soars Over Mojave, Testing Re-Entry System

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.”

Feathered Flight during Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's third powered flight on January 10,  2014 over the Mojave desert. This image was taken by MARS Scientific as part of the Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System optical tracking system.
Feathered Flight during Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo’s third powered flight on January 10, 2014, over the Mojave desert. This image was taken by MARS Scientific as part of the Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System optical tracking system.

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.

Here’s What It Looks Like To Build The Lynx Spacecraft

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.

The company plans to start tests on the Lynx Mark I prototype in 2015, with the Mark II (the production version) starting flights at a yet-to-be-announced date. XCOR’s major competitor in space tourism is Virgin Galactic, which has done several powered test flights of SpaceShipTwo and is also hoping to start test flights shortly.

View of the Lynx cockpit, fuselage and strakes. Credit: XCOR Aerospace / Mike Massee
View of the Lynx cockpit, fuselage and strakes. Credit: XCOR Aerospace / Mike Massee
Ray Fitting, an XCOR shop technician, with a liquid oxygen pump for the Lynx spacecraft. Credit: XCOR Aerospace / Mike Massee
Ray Fitting, an XCOR shop technician, with a liquid oxygen pump for the Lynx spacecraft. Credit: XCOR Aerospace / Mike Massee
View of the Lynx cockpit, fuselage and strakes. Credit: XCOR Aerospace / Mike Massee
View of the Lynx cockpit, fuselage and strakes. Credit: XCOR Aerospace / Mike Massee
XCOR engineer Mark Street signing off on the Lynx cockpit structure before the structure is mated with the fuselage. Credit: XCOR Aerospace / Mike Massee
XCOR engineer Mark Street signing off on the Lynx cockpit structure before the structure is mated with the fuselage. Credit: XCOR Aerospace / Mike Massee
XCOR engineer Mark Street inspecting the Lynx cockpit. Credit: XCOR Aerospace / Mike Massee
XCOR engineer Mark Street inspecting the Lynx cockpit. Credit: XCOR Aerospace / Mike Massee

Support a Good Cause To Win a Trip To Space

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’.)

How a Lynx Mark II flight works (Source: XCOR)
How a Lynx Mark II flight works (Source: XCOR)

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 12.53.52 PMAdd 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.

Click here to sign up and enter the Ticket to Rise campaign.

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.

Do You Know 80s Kid Who Inspired Virgin Galactic? Branson Asks For Help Ahead Of First Spaceflight

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.

What to Wear? The History and Future of Spacesuits

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.

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X-ray images of Neil Armstrong’s historic suit on display in Suited for Space. (Photo by author).

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.

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Wiley Post’s 1934 “rubber bladder suit.” (Photo by author).

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.

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A x-ray photo of an EX-1A spacesuit. (Photo by author).

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.

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Early evolution of space suits on display at the Suited for Space exhibit. (Photo by author).

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.

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An A5-L Spacesuit. Credit: Smithsonian/Suited for Space.

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!

-And you can see these suits in action on the up and coming future EVAs for 2014.

-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.

– Follow the Tampa Bay History Museum of Twitter as @TampaBayHistory.

 

NBC To Broadcast Virgin Galactic’s First Commercial Spaceflight

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.

Virgin Galactic Ticket To Space Promised In New Reality Show Deal

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.

Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employees of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt's wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its "mothership", WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.
Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employees of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt’s wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its “mothership”, WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.

“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.

SpaceShipTwo Feathers Wings During Second Powered Test Flight

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.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, aboard WhiteKnightTwo, takes off during a flight test Sept. 5, 2013. Credit: Virgin Galactic (Twitter)
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, aboard WhiteKnightTwo, takes off during a flight test Sept. 5, 2013. Credit: Virgin Galactic (Twitter)

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.”

Reports say Branson and some members of his family will be on the first test flight. Should that go to plan, there is a parade of celebrities and ordinary citizens to come. Read more about SpaceShipTwo’s expected flight profile here.