Star Lab Needs Payloads!

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Star Lab, the next-generation vehicle for suborbital experiments developed by the Florida-based 4Frontiers Corporation, is well on its way toward its first successful flight — and it’s looking for payloads.

First reported on Universe Today by Jason Rhian in November of last year, Star Lab consists of stacked and subdivided cylindrical sections customized to hold scientific experiments. Contained within a rocket vehicle affixed to the wing of a Starfighters, Inc. F-104 supersonic aircraft, Star Lab will be launched during flight to attain an altitude of about 100 km, going suborbital and achieving 3 1/2 minutes of microgravity before descending.

“If Star Lab proves itself viable this could open the door to a great many scientific institutions conducting their research by using the Star Lab vehicle,” Mark Homnick, CEO of 4Frontiers Corporation, told Universe Today in November.

(Read Science On The Wings of Starfighters by Jason Rhian)

A high-purity environment within the Star Lab compartments will ensure no contamination from the outside can interfere with payloads contained within, making Star Lab suitable for both non-organic and bio-med experiments.

A scale prototype of a Star Lab payload section, molded in ABS plastic. (4Frontiers/J. Major)

Alternatively, the payload compartments can be made accessible to the external environment, allowing for atmospheric sampling.

After descent, Star Lab will splash down into the Atlantic and be retrieved by ship. Clients can expect to have their payloads returned within a 24-hour period — a quick turnaround especially essential for biological experiments.

In addition, Star Lab payloads can be accessed up to 24 hours before launch, allowing for any last-minute adjustments, minor installations or fine tuning.

Currently Star Lab is moving into its flight test phase of development, when the F-104s will go through a series of incremental tests up to and including an actual launch of the vehicle. This will determine how well it handles the stresses of flight and how to best — and most safely — perform the actual launch, slated for September 2012.

A maneuver only ever executed in military operations, Star Lab will become the first commercial vehicle to be launched from an aircraft.

(Read StarFighters, Inc. – The Supersonic Research Fleet Expands by Tammy Plotner)

Star Lab has 14 contracts signed for payloads at this time, and is right now working on a partnership with the payload-specialist company Kentucky Space to co-develop a successful market for bio-med experiments.

“We are looking for payloads… we’re real, we’re viable, and we have the best deal that I know of in respect to costs and what we provide,” Homnick said during an interview on March 15, 2012. “We’ll have the lowest cost and the highest launch rate, anywhere.”

At this point, signups with Star Lab require only a signature… no payment is required until the vehicle is proven.

“There’s even a contingency in there… we have to show with our prototypes that we are launching in the summer that they actually perform,” Homnick added. “One, they have to reach the altitude — over 80 kilometers — and two, we have to return the payloads for our prototype. And then, after all that, they would actually pay us… half up front, and half after launch.”

And if that’s not a good enough deal, the state of Florida is helping pick up some of the bill.

Under NASA’s Florida Space Grant, commercial ventures taking place in Florida are subject to a rebate program. Once a payload is launched, Space Lab customers can receive a refund from Space Florida of 1/3 of their cost.

Starting at $4,000 (after the Space Florida rebate), including integration and return costs, getting an experiment suborbital has never been so cost-effective.

“The whole concept is to make it really inexpensive and convenient to fly a lot of payloads,” Homnick said. “With ten launches a year, and up to thirteen payloads per launch, there’s a high launch rate.”

And with such convenience, Star Lab will help get the future of space research off the ground — literally.

Members of the Star Lab team during a fast taxi test at Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility. (4Frontiers Corp.)

“We’re real, we’re viable, and we have the best deal that I know of… we’ll have the lowest cost and the highest launch rate, anywhere.”

– Mark Homnick, CEO of 4Frontiers Corporation

4Frontiers will be at the Space Flight Payloads Workshop on Friday, March 23 at the Florida Solar Energy Center from 10 am to 5 pm. See more about Star Lab and what’s coming next from 4Frontiers here.

4Frontiers Corporation, the principal developer of Star Lab, was founded in 2005 in Florida, USA. 4Frontiers is an emerging space commerce company focused on developing fundamental space-related capabilities and resources essential for a long-term human presence in space. 4Frontiers will address the potential of the four most promising space frontiers: Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and asteroids.

Revolutionary Air-Launched Commercial Rocket to Orbit Announced by Microsoft Billionaire Paul Allen

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A mega quartet of luminaries led by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and legendary aerospace designer Burt Rutan have joined forces to create a revolutionary new approach to space travel. This new privately funded venture entails the development of a mammoth air-launched space transportation system that aims to dramatically cut the high costs and risks of launching both cargo and human crews to low Earth orbit.

Allen and Rutan are teaming up with Elon Musk, founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX, and Michael Griffin, former NASA Administrator, to build the world’s largest aircraft ever flown and use it as a platform to loft a multi-stage SpaceX rocket that will deliver a payload of some 13,500 pounds into earth orbit, about the same class as a Delta II.

Allen and Rutan hope to build upon the spaceflight revolution that they pioneered with the suborbital SpaceShipOne in 2004, which was the first privately funded spaceship to reach the edge of space, and now take the critical next step and actually vault all the way to orbit.


Video Caption: Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering innovative solutions to revolutionize space transportation to orbit.

To accomplish this innovative leap, Allen and Rutan, announced the formation of a new company, funded by Allen, called Stratolaunch Systems at a press briefing today, Dec. 13, held in Seattle, WA. Allen is a billionaire and philanthropist who has funded a host of projects to advance science,

“Our national aspirations for space exploration have been receding,” Allen lamented at the start of the briefing. “This year saw the end of NASA’s space shuttle program. Constellation, which would have taken us back to the moon, has been mothballed as well. For the first time since John Glenn, America cannot fly its own astronauts into space.”

“With government funded spaceflight diminishing, there’s a much expanded opportunity for privately funded efforts.”

Rutan said that Stratolaunch will build a 1.2 million pound carrier aircraft sporting a wingspan of 385 feet – longer than a football field – and which will be powered by six 747 engines on takeoff. The carrier will be a twin fuselage vehicle, like the WhiteKnight developed by Rutan to launch SpaceShipOne.

Air launch of SpaceX rocket to orbit

The 120 foot long SpaceX rocket, weighing up to 490,000 pounds, will be slung in between and dropped at an altitude of about 30,000 feet for the remaining ascent to orbit.

SpaceX will construct a shorter, less powerful version of the firms existing Falcon 9 rocket, which may be either a Falcon 4 or Falcon 5 depending on specifications.

The new launch system will operate from a large airport or spaceport like the Kennedy Space Center, require a 12,000 feet long runway for takeoff and landing and be capable of flying up to 1,300 nautical miles to the payload’s launch point. Crews aboard the huge carrier aircraft will also conduct the countdown and firing of the booster and will monitor payload blasting to orbit.

“I have long dreamed about taking the next big step in private space flight after the success of SpaceShipOne – to offer a flexible, orbital space delivery system,” Allen said. “We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry. Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionize space travel.”

The goal of Stratolaunch is to “bring airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human missions,” according to a company statement.

Plans call for a first orbital flight within five years by around 2016. Test flights could begin around 2015.

“We believe this technology has the potential to someday make spaceflight routine by removing many of the constraints associated with ground launched rockets,” said Mike Griffin. “Our system will also provide the flexibility to launch from a large variety of locations.”

Mike Griffin added that the venture is aiming for the small to medium class payload market similar to what has been served by the venerable Delta II rocket, which is now being retired after decades of service.

“NASA’s science satellites could also be lofted by Stratolaunch.”

“At some point this vehicle could loft a crew of say six people,” Griffin stated.

“This is an exciting day,” concluded Allen.

“Stratolaunch will keep America at the forefront of space exploration and give tomorrow’s children something to search for in the night sky and dream about. Work has already started on our project at the Mojave Spaceport.”

SpaceX Dragon cargo spaceship propels commercial and science payloads to orbit following air-launch from gigantic carrier aircraft. Credit: Stratolaunch Systems

Star Lab: Space Science on the Wings of Starfighters

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – A NewSpace company based out of New Port Richey in Florida is working to provide suborbital access to space for firms with scientific payloads. The Star Lab project is an experimental suborbital launcher, designed to provide frequent, less expensive access to sub-orbit. This could allow educational and scientific institutions across the nation to conduct experiments that would normally be impractical.

“If Star Lab proves itself viable, as we feel it will, this could open the door to a great many scientific institutions conducting their research by using the Star Lab vehicle,” said Mark Homnick the CEO of 4Frontiers Corporation.

On Oct. 27th, the Star Lab launcher was tested out while attached to the F-104 carrier aircraft via a series of fast-taxis up and down NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility located in Florida. Photo Credit: NASA.gov

4Frontiers is working to launch their Star Lab sounding rocket vehicle into sub-orbital space via an F-104 Starfighter that is part of the Starfighters demo team based out of Kennedy Space Center. 4Frontiers hopes to launch a prototype early next year with commercial flights to follow about six months later.

On Thursday Oct. 27, Star Lab began the first of its tests as it was mounted to a F-104 Starfighter and the aircraft then conducted several fast-taxi runs up and down NASA’s Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) with the Star Lab vehicle affixed to one of its pylons. On the last of these fast taxis, the jet aircraft deployed its drogue chute. These maneuvers were conducted to collect data to test the Star Lab vehicle’s response.

In terms of providing access to space, compared to more conventional means, the Star Lab project is considered to be an innovative and cost-effective means for scientific firms to test their experiments in the micro-gravity environment. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

The Star Lab suborbital vehicle is an air-launched sounding rocket, which is designed to be reusable and can reach a maximum altitude of about 120km.

The Star Lab vehicle carrying scientific payloads is launched from the venerable F-104 Starfighter jet. After the Star Lab payload stage reaches its predetermined altitude, it will descend by parachute into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. Star Lab is capable of carrying up to 13 payloads per flight.

Members of the Starfighters Demo Team along with technicians working on the Star Lab program work to attach the vehicle to the F-104 Starfighter. Photo Credit: Star Lab

All of these payloads will have access to the outside, sub-orbital space environment. One payload on each mission will be deployable by way of an ejectable nosecone on the Star Lab vehicle. 4Frontiers Corporation will handle integrating the payloads into the vehicle. After the craft splashes down, private recovery teams will collect and return it to 4Frontiers. It in turn will have the payloads off-loaded and the Star Lab vehicle will then be reprocessed for its next mission.

“Today, 4Frontiers and Starfighters, with the assistance of the Florida Space Grant Consortium, unveiled to the public for the first time the Star Lab suborbital project. Star Lab is an air-launched reusable sounding vehicle, built using COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) technology and able to reach altitudes of up to 120km,” said 4Frontiers’ Business Development Manager Panayot Slavov. “With its very reasonable price structure, frequent flight schedule and numerous educational and research opportunities, the vehicle and the project will turn into the suborbital research platform of choice for all those who are interested in experimenting and learning about suborbital space.”

The project was created through a cooperative agreement between the 4Frontiers Corporation, Starfighters Aerospace, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Central Florida with funding provided by the NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium.

If all goes according to plan firms wanting to send their payloads into suborbit could achieve this goal via the Star Lab project. Photo Credit: Starfighters Aerospace