Blue Origin, the private aerospace company founded by multi-billionaire (and founder of Amazon) Jeff Bezos, is looking to make its presence felt in the rapidly expanding NewSpace industry. To this end, Blue Origin has spent years developing a fleet of reusable rockets that they hope will someday rival those of their greatest competitor, SpaceX.
So far, these efforts have led to the New Shepard rocket, which can send payloads (and soon, space tourists) to suborbital altitudes. In the coming years, Blue Origin hopes to go farther with their New Glenn rocket, a reusable launch vehicle capable of reaching Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). The company recently released a new video of the New Glenn, which showcased the designs latest features and specifications.
Time capsules are a fun and time-honored way to preserve pieces of the past. In most cases, they include photographs, mementos and other items of personal value, things that give future generations a sense of what life was like in the past. But what if we intend to preserve the memories and experiences of an entire species for thousands of years? What would we choose to squirrel away then, and where would be place it?
That’s precisely what researchers from the Molecular Information Systems Lab at the University of Washington (UW) and Microsoft had in mind when they announced their #MemoriesInDNA project. This project invites people to submit photos that will be encoded in DNA and stored for millennia. And thanks to a new partnership with the Arch Mission Foundation, this capsule will be sent to the Moon in 2020!
When it comes to the growth of the private aerospace sector (aka. NewSpace), one of the more ambitious and exciting elements is the prospect of space tourism. Between SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, proposals include flying customers to suborbital altitudes, flying them to the Moon, or even as far as Mars. And beyond the three NewSpace giants, several smaller companies are looking for a piece of the pie.
One such company is the Japanese startup PD AeroSpace, a Nagoya-based aerospace developer that is looking to provide commercial space launch services, intercontinental transportation, and sub-orbital flights in the near future. Intrinsic to this vision is the development of a unique space plane that will be able to fly tourists to suborbital altitude by 2023.
Of all challenges presented by space exploration – and to be fair, there are many! – one of the greatest is the cost. When it comes right down to it, launching disposable rockets from Earth and getting them to the point where they can achieve escape velocity and reach space is expensive. In addition, these rockets need to be big, powerful, and be able to hold a lot of fuel in order to lift spacecraft or cargo.
It is for this reason that so many efforts in the past few decades have been focused on reducing costs of individual launches. Between reusable rockets and reusable spacecraft (i.e the Space Shuttle), there are plenty of ways to make launch vehicles cheaper. But to the Jonathan Yaney, the founder of SpinLaunch, a real cost-cutting solution is to propel smaller payloads into orbit using a space catapult instead.
The concept of a space catapult is simple, and has been explored at length since the beginning of the Space Age. Also known as a mass driver or coilgun, the concept relies on a set of powerful electromagnetic rails to accelerate spacecraft or payloads to escape velocity and launch them horizontally. Since the 1960s, NASA has been exploring the concept as an alternative to conducting rocket launches.
In addition, NASA has been continued to develop this technology through the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Kennedy Space Center. Here, engineers have been working on ways to launch spacecraft horizontally using scramjets on an electrified track or gas-powered sled. A good example of this is the Magnetic Levitation (MagLev) System which uses the same technology as a maglev train to accelerate a small space plane into orbit.
Another variation of the concept involves a centrifuge, where the spacecraft or cargo is accelerated on a circular track until it reaches escape velocity (and then launches). This concept was proposed by Dr. Derek Tidman – a physicists who specialized in electrothermal and electromagnetic acceleration – in the 1990s. Known as the Slingatron, this version of the space catapult is currently being researched by HyperV Technologies.
However, these ideas were never adopted because vast improvements were needed in terms of electromagnetic induction technology in order to achieve the speeds necessary to put heavy payloads into space. But thanks to improvements in high-speed maglev trains, recent attempts to create Hyperloop pods and tracks, and the growth of the commercial aerospace market, the time may be ripe to revisit this concept.
Such is the hope of Jonathan Yaney, an aerospace enthusiast who has a long history of co-founding startups. As he describes himself, Yaney is a “serial entrepreneur” who has spent the past 15 years founding companies in the fields of consulting, IT, construction, and aerospace. Now, he has founded SpinLaunch with the intention of launching satellites into space.
And while Yaney has been known for being rather recluse, TechCrunch recently secured an exclusive interview and gained access to the company hangar. According to multiple sources that they cite, Yaney and the company he founded are launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise the $30 million in Series A funding to develop the catapult technology. In the course of the interview, Yaney expressed his vision for space exploration as follows:
“Since the dawn of space exploration, rockets have been the only way to access space. Yet in 70 years, the technology has only made small incremental advances. To truly commercialize and industrialize space, we need 10x tech improvement.”
According to a source cited by TechCrunch, SpinLaunch own design would apparently involve a centrifuge that accelerates payloads to speeds of up to 4,828 km/h (3,000 mph). Additionally, the cargo could be equipped with supplemental rockets in order to escape Earth’s atmosphere. By replacing rocket boosters with a kinetic launch system, SpinLaunch’s concept would rely on principles that are similar to those explored by NASA.
But as he went on to explain, the method his company is exploring is different. “SpinLaunch employs a rotational acceleration method, harnessing angular momentum to gradually accelerate the vehicle to hypersonic speeds,” he said. “This approach employs a dramatically lower cost architecture with much lower power.” Utilizing this technology, Yaney estimates that the costs of individual launches could be reduced to $500,000 – essentially, by a factor of 10 to 200.
Not much else is known about this startup. According to Bloomberg Financial, little is known about the company or its founder beyond a brief description. However, according to SEC documents cited by TechCrunch, Yaney was able to raise $1 million in equity in 2014 and $2.9 million in 2015 before being $2.2. million dollars in debt by mid-2017 and another $2 million in debt by late 2017.
Luckily, the Hawaii state senate introduced a bill last month that proposed issuing $25 million in bonds to assist SpinLaunch with the construction of its space catapult. Hawaii also hopes to gain construction contracts for the launch system, as part of its commitment to making space accessible. As it states in the bill:
“[T]he department of budget and finance, with the approval of the governor, is authorized to issue special purpose revenue bonds in a total amount not to exceed $25,000,000, in one or more series, for the purpose of assisting SpinLaunch Inc., a Delaware corporation, in financing the costs relating to the planning, design, construction, equipping, acquisition of land, including easements or other interests therein, and other tangible assets for an electrically powered, kinetic launch system to transport small satellites into low Earth orbit.”
In the meantime, Yaney is looking to the public and to several big venture capital firms to raise the revenue he needs to make his vision become a reality. Of course, beyond the issue of financing, there are several technical barriers which still need to be addressed before a space catapult could be realized. The most obvious of these is how to overcome the air resistance produced by Earth’s dense atmosphere.
However, Yaney was optimistic in his interview with TechCrunch, claiming that his company is investigating these and other challenges:
“During the last three years, the core technology has been developed, prototyped, tested and most of the tech risk retired. The remaining challenges are in the construction and associated areas that all very large hardware development and construction projects face.”
There’s no indication of when such a system might be complete, but that’s to be expected at this point. However, with the support of the Hawaiian government and some additional capital, his company is likely to secure its Series A funding and begin moving to the next phase of development. Much like the Hyperloop, this concept may prove to be one of those ideas that keeps advancing because of the people who are willing to make it happen!
And be sure to check out this video about SpinLaunch’s crowdfunding campaign, courtesy of Scott Manley:
In 2011, Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan announced the launch of their private space venture. Known as Stratolaunch Systems, this Seattle-based company was founded with the intention of developing air-launch-to-orbit systems. Similar to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, this concept involves a large air carrier flying rockets to launch altitude as cost-effective means of delivering small payloads to orbit.
On Thursday, May 31st, the company unveiled their launch vehicle, the Scaled Composites Model 351 (aka. the “Roc”). Consisting of two 747 hulls mated together, this aircraft is the the largest in the world – spanning 117 meters (385 ft) from one wingtip to the other and weighing 226,796 kg (500,000 lbs). This plane will make its first test flight in a few days time, and the company hopes to make its first commercial launch by 2019.
The rollout of the Roc – which took place at the company’s hangar facility at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California – was a media circus. In addition to being the first time that the public got to see the aircraft since construction began, the occasion marked the beginning of several tests which will take place over the coming days – including fueling tests, engine runs, taxi tests, and its first test flight.
“We’re excited to announce that Stratolaunch aircraft has reached a major milestone in its journey toward providing convenient, reliable, and routine access to low Earth orbit. Today, we’re moving the Stratolaunch aircraft out of the hangar – for the first time ever – to conduct aircraft fueling tests. This marks the completion of the initial aircraft construction phase and the beginning of the aircraft ground and flight testing phase.”
Measuring about 72.5 meters (238 ft) from nose to tail, the aircraft also stands 15.24 meters (50 ft) tall, measured from the ground to the top of the vertical tail. It has a maximum takeoff weight of 589,670 kg (1.3 million lbs), meaning that it is capable of airlifting payloads of up to 249,476 kg (550,000 lbs). These kinds of payloads mean that it will be capable of flying rockets and heavy space planes to launch altitude.
Last fall, the company announced their plan to conduct a launch using a single Orbital ATK Pegasus XL vehicle, a three-stage rocket used to deploy small satellites to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). This agreement was part of a multi-year collaboration between the two companies, which would see the former combining their aircraft with the latter’s extensive air-launch experience.
First unveiled in 1990, the Pegasus XL quickly established itself as a cost-effective means for launching small payloads to LEO. These typically would consist of small satellites weighing up to 443 kg (977 lbs) from beneath a NASA B-52 aircraft. Since then, the Pegasus has carried out 43 space launch missions and successfully placed a total of 94 satellites into orbit for various reasons – ranging from scientific research and communications to defense.
In time, the company plans to explore a wide range of launch vehicles that can provide flexibility in terms of missions and payloads. But in the meantime, they will be conducting ground and flight line testing from the Mojave Air and Space Port to ensure that Roc is capable of doing all it was designed for. If all goes well, they plan to make their first commercial launch by 2019.
“This marks a historic step in our work to achieve Paul G. Allen’s vision of normalizing access to low Earth orbit,” said Floyd. “It is proud day for us at Stratolaunch, for our partners at Scaled Composites, and for our founder Paul Allen. We have a lot of exciting activity ahead as we enter the testing process, and we look forward to sharing our progress during the coming months.”
One of the hallmarks of the commercial aerospace (aka. NewSpace) industry has been the development of cost-saving measures. Whereas companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin has looked to reusable rocket technology, other companies have sought to reduce costs with Single-Stage-to-Orbit (SSTO) rockets and plug-in payloads. Air-launch-to-orbit systems are just another way in which space is becoming more accessible.
And be sure to check out this video of the Roc’s unveiling:
Earlier this week, the island nation of New Zealand accomplished a historic first. On Wednesday, May 24th at 16:20 p.m. NZST – 00:20 a.m. EDT; May 23rd, 21:20 p.m. PDT – the country joined the small club of nations that have space launch capability. Taking off from a launch pad located on the Mahia Peninsula (on the North Island), the test flight was also a first for the US/NZ-based company Rocket Lab.
With the successful launch of their test rocket, Rocket Lab has become the latest aerospace firm to join a burgeoning market, where private companies are able to provide regular launch services to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). Whereas other companies like SpaceX are looking to restore domestic heavy-launch capability, companies like Rocket Lab are looking to fill a niche market which would make space more accessible.
The launch was originally pushed back to this past Wednesday, which was the fourth day in a ten-day launch window (running from May 21st to May 30th), due to bad weather. And while no spectators or media outlets were permitted to witness the event, the company recorded the launch and posted it to their website and official Twitter account (shown below).
Though the rocket did not quite reach orbit, it successfully flew along the trajectory that future launches will follow. This test launch was the first of three planned, and carried sensor equipment rather than a conventional payload in order to let engineers on the ground gather data on the flight. As chief executive Peter Beck said in a statement after the rocket took off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1:
“It was a great flight. We had a great first stage burn, stage separation, second stage ignition and fairing separation. We didn’t quite reach orbit and we’ll be investigating why, however reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our program, deliver our customers to orbit and make space open for business.”
The rocket in question was a prototype disposable vehicle known as the Electron rocket. This two-stage rocket is composed of carbon fiber, which allows for durability and reduced weight, and is manufactured in-house. It also relies on a “plug-in payload” design that allows for the separation of the main assembly and payload integration processes.
In short, in the future, customers will be able to load the payload fairing themselves at their own facilities. This is especially useful wherever environmentally-controlled or sealed cargo is involved. They will then be able to have the second stage transported to the Rocket Lab facility for integration. This design is also intended to allow for flexibility, where the launch vehicle can be tailored to meet specific mission requirements.
The first stage of the vehicle is powered by nine Rutherford engines – an oxygen/kerosene pump-fed engine designed and built by Rocket Lab – while the second stage is powered by a single Rutherford. In addition to reducing mass, the engine is also the first oxygen/kerosene engine to make use of 3-D printed components. Each engine offers a liftoff thrust of 18 kilo Newtons, or 4000 pound-force (lbf), and a peak thrust (in vacuum) of 22 kN (41,500 lbf).
Once testing is complete, Rocket Lab intends to maintain a fleet of these rockets, which will be capable of launching payloads of between 150 and 225 kg (330 to 496 lbs) to a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit. With these parameters in mind, Rocket Lab is clearly aiming to cater to telecommunications companies, internet providers, research institutions and universities.
In short, small satellites are a fast-growing market, but the current space launch environment can be prohibitive to small companies and researchers. As it stands, booking a space launch is a complicated matter, subject to flight schedules, the availability of cargo space, and costs that are outside of many customers’ price range. By developing rockets that are relatively cheap and can be built quickly, those looking to launch small satellite will have increased options.
“We’re one of a few companies to ever develop a rocket from scratch and we did it in under four years. We’ve worked tirelessly to get to this point,” said Beck. “We’ve developed everything in house, built the world’s first private orbital launch range, and we’ve done it with a small team.
New Zealand was selected as the location of the company’s launch facility for a number of reasons. Compared to the US and other potential launch sites, New Zealand has less air traffic, which ensures that air carriers don’t need to reroute their flights during a launch. The country is also well-situated to get satellites into a north-to-south orbit around Earth, and launches take place over open water (away from population centers).
On top of that, Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck is a native of New Zealand. In the coming weeks, the company he founded will be looking over its test flight data to prepare for its second test launch, which will take place in a few months. This launch will attempt to reach orbit and maximize the payload the rocket can carry. All told, Rocket Lab has three test flights scheduled for 2017.
Once the company reaches full production, they hope to be conducting a record-setting 50 to 120 launches a year. If possible, this will significantly reduce the costs associated with small payload launches.
“We have learnt so much through this test launch and will learn even more in the weeks to come,” said Beck. “We’re committed to making space accessible and this is a phenomenal milestone in that journey. The applications doing this will open up are endless. Known applications include improved weather reporting, Internet from space, natural disaster prediction, up-to-date maritime data as well as search and rescue services.”
Rocket Lab is joined by companies like ARCA, which is seeking to lower the costs of small-payload launches through the development of single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) rockets. Their SSTO rocket concept, known as the Haas 2CA, was unveiled in March and is scheduled to begin launch testing next year.
Be sure to check out this video of the launch as well, courtesy of Rocket Lab:
It’s a new era for space travel. And if there’s one thing that sets it apart from the previous one, it is the spirit of collaboration that exists between space agencies and between the public and private sector. And with commercial aerospace (aka. NewSpace) companies looking to provide everything from launch services to orbital and lunar tourism, a day is fast-approaching when ordinary people will be able to go into space.
Because of this, many aerospace companies are establishing safety and training programs for prospective clients. If civilians plan on going into space, they need to have the benefit of some basic astronaut training. In short, they will need to learn how to go safely conduct themselves in a zero-gravity environment, with everything from how to avoid blowing chunks to how to relieve oneself in a tidy fashion.
And while these trips will not be cheap – Virgin Galactic estimates that a single seat aboard SpaceShipTwo will cost $250,000 – they absolutely have to be safe! Luckily, space agencies like NASA already have a very well-established and time-honored practice for training astronauts for zero-g. Perhaps the most famous involves flying them around in a Zero-Gravity Aircraft, colloquially known as the “Vomit Comet”.
This training program is really quite straightforward. After bringing astronaut trainees to an altitude of over 10,000 meters (32,000 feet), the plane begins flying in a parabolic arc. This consists of it climbing and falling, over and over, which causes the trainees to experience the feeling of weightlessness whenever the plane is falling. The name “vomit comet” (obviously) arises from the fact that passengers tend to lose their lunch in the process.
The Soviet-era space program also conducted weightlessness training, which Roscomos has continued since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 1984, the European Space Agency (ESA) has also conducts parabolic flights using a specially-modified Airbus A300 B2 aircraft. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has done the same since it was founded in 1989, relying on the Falcon 20 twin-engine jet.
Given the fact that NASA has been sending astronauts into space for nearly 60 years, they have certainly accrued a lot of experience in dealing with the effects of weightlessness. Over the short-term, these include space adaptation syndrome (SAS), which is also known as “space sickness”. True to its name, the symptoms of SAS include nausea and vomiting, vertigo, headaches, lethargy, and an overall feeling of unease.
Roughly 45% of all people who have flown in space have suffered from space sickness. The duration of varies, but cases have never been shown to exceed 72 hours, after which the body adapts to the new environment. And with the benefit of training, which includes acclimating to what weightlessness feels like, both the onset and duration can be mitigated.
Beyond NASA and other space agencies, private companies have also offered reduced gravity training to private customers. In 2004, the Zero Gravity Corporation (Zero-G, based in Arlington, Virginia) became the first company in the US to offer parabolic flights using a converted Boeing 727. In 2008, the company was acquired by Space Adventures, another Virginia-based space tourism company.
Much like Virgin Galactic, Space Adventures began offering clients advance bookings for sub-orbital flights, and has since expanded their vision to include lunar spaceflights. As such, the Zero-G experience has become their training platform, allowing clients the ability to experience weightlessness before going into space. In addition, some of the 700 clients who have already booked tickets with Virgin Galactic have used this same training method to prepare.
Similarly, Virgin Galactic is taking steps to prepare its astronauts for the day when they begin making regular flights into sub-orbit. According to the company, this will consist of astronauts taking part in a three day pre-flight preparation program that will be conducted onsite at Spaceport America – Virgin Galactic’s spaceflight facility, located in New Mexico.
Aside from microgravity, their astronaut training will also emphasize how to function when experiencing macrogravity (i.e. multi-g forces), which occur during periods of acceleration. The training will also include medical check-ups, psychological evaluations, and other forms of pre-flight prepation – much in the same way that regular astronauts are prepared for their journey. As they state on their website:
“Pre-flight preparation will ensure that each astronaut is mentally and physically prepared to savor every second of the spaceflight. Basic emergency response training prescribed by our regulators will be at the forefront. Activities to aid familiarity with the spaceflight environment will follow a close second.”
Blue Origin, meanwhile, has also been addressing concerns with regards to its plan to start sending tourists into suborbit in their New Shepard system. After launching from their pad outside of El Paso, Texas, the rocket will fly customers to an altitude of 100 km (62 mi) above the Earth. During this phase, the passengers will experience 3 Gs of acceleration – i.e. three times what they are used to.
Once it reaches space, the capsule will then detach from the rocket. During this time, the passengers will experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Between the intense acceleration and the feeling of freefall, many have wondered if potential clients should be worried about space sickness. These questions have been addressed by former NASA astronaut Nicholas Patrick, who now serves as Blue Origin’s human integration architect.
During an interview with Geekwire in January of 2017, he indicated that they plan to provide barf bags for customers to tuck into their flight suits, just in case. This is similar to what astronauts do aboard the International Space Station (see video above) and during long-term spaceflights. When asked about what customers could do to prepare for space sickness, he also emphasized that some training would be provided:
“It’s a short flight, so we won’t be asking people to train for a year, the way NASA astronauts trained for a shuttle flight, or three years, the way they train for a long space station mission. We’re going to get this training down to a matter of days, or less. That’s because we don’t have very many tasks. You need to know how to get out of your seat gracefully, and back into your seat safely.
“We’ll teach you a few safety procedures, like how to use the fire extinguisher – and maybe how to use the communication system, although that will come naturally to many people. What we’ll probably spend some time on is training people how to enjoy it. What are they going to take with them and use up there? How are they going to play? How are they going to experiment? Not too much training, just enough to have fun.”
“Getting sick to your stomach can be a problem on zero-G airplane flights like NASA’s “Vomit Comet,” but motion sickness typically doesn’t come up until you’ve gone through several rounds of zero-G. Blue Origin’s suborbital space ride lasts only 11 minutes, with a single four-minute dose of weightlessness.”
Bezos also addressed these questions in early April during the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, where his company was showcasing the New Shepard crew capsule. Here too, audience members had questions about what passengers should do if they felt the need to vomit (among the other things) in space.
“They don’t throw up right away,” he said, referring to astronauts succumbing to space sickness. “We’re not going to worry about it… It takes about three hours before you start to throw up. It’s a delayed effect. And this journey takes ten or eleven minutes. So you’re going to be fine.”
On April 27th, during a special Q&A session of Twitch Science Week, Universe Today’s own Fraser Cain took part in a panel discussion about the future of space exploration. Among the panelists were and Ariane Cornell, the head of Astronaut Strategy and Sales for Blue Origin. When the subject of training and etiquette came up, she described the compact process Blue Origins intends to implement to prepare customers for their flight:
“[T]he day before flight is when we give you a full – intense, but very fun – day of training. So they are going to teach you all the crucial things that you need. So ingress, how do you get into the capsule, how do you buckle in. Egress, how do you get out of the seat, out of the hatch. We’re going to teach you some emergency procedures, because we want to make sure that you guys are prepared, and feel comfortable. We’re also going to teach you about zero-g etiquette, so then when we’re all up there and we’re doing our somersaults, you know… no Matrix scenes, no Kung Fu fighting – you gotta make sure that everybody gets to enjoy the flight.”
When asked (by Fraser) if people should skip breakfast, she replied:
“No. It’s the most important meal of the day. You’re going to want to have your energy and we’re pretty confident that you’re going to have a good ride and you’re not going to feel nauseous. It’s one parabola. And when we’ve seen people, for example, when they go on rides on NASA’s “Vomit Comet”… What we’ve seen from those types of parabolic flights is that people – if they get sick – its parabola six, seven, eight. It’s a delayed effect, really. We think that with that one parabola – four minutes – you’re going to enjoy every second of it.”
Another interesting issue was addressed during the 33rd Space Symposium was whether or not the New Shepard capsule would have “facilities”. When asked about this, Bezos was similarly optimistic. “Go to the bathroom in advance,” he said, to general laughter. “If you have to pee in 11 minutes, you got problems.” He did admit that with boarding, the entire experience could take up to 41 minutes, but that passengers should be able to wait that long (fingers crossed!)
But in the event of longer flights, bathroom etiquette will need to be an issue. After all, its not exactly easy to relieve oneself in an environment where all things – solid and liquid – float freely and therefore cannot simply be flushed away. Luckily, NASA and other space agencies have us covered there too. Aboard the ISS, where astronauts have to relieve themselves regularly, waste-disposal is handled by “zero-g toilets”.
Similar to what astronauts used aboard the Space Shuttle, a zero-g toilet involves an astronaut fastening themselves to the toilet seat. Rather than using water, the removal of waste is accomplished with a vacuum suction hole. Liquid waste is transferred to the Water Recovery System, where it is converted back into drinking water (that’s right, astronauts drink their own pee… sort of).
Solid waste is collected in individual bags that are stored in an aluminum container, which are then transferred to the docked spacecraft for disposal. Remember that scene in The Martian where Mark Watney collected his crew members solid waste to use as fertilizer? Well, its much the same. Poo in a bag, and then let someone remove it and deal with it once you get home.
When it comes to lunar tourism, space sickness and waste disposal will be a must. And when it comes to Elon Musk’s plan to start ferrying people to Mars in the coming decades – aboard his Interplanetary Transportation System – it will be an absolute must! It will certainly be interesting to see how those who intend to get into the lunar tourism biz, and those who want to colonize Mars, will go about addressing these needs.
In the meantime, keep your eyes on the horizon, keep your barf bags handy, and make sure your zero-g toilet has a tight seal!
Founded in 2009, the private aerospace company Zero2Infinity – which is headquartered in Barcelona, Spain – was created with the vision of delivering orbital payloads and providing space tourism on a budget. But unlike your conventional aerospace companies – i.e. SpaceX, Blue Origin, Orbital ATK, etc – their plan is to do it all using high-altitude stratospheric balloons.
On March 1st, the Zero2Infinity team passed a major milestone, deploying a prototype “rockoon” craft from the National Institute of Aerospace Technology‘s (INTA) facility in El Arenosillo, Spain. Known as Bloostar, this two-stage craft (which consists of a balloon and a rocket) is one of the latest technologies seeking to drastically reduce the costs of launching people and payloads into space.
As the name would suggest, the Bloostar craft consists of a first-stage balloon that carries a launch vehicle to altitudes of about 40 km (25 mi), where it is then engages its engine. By bringing a rocket to an attitude that is twice the cruising altitude of commercial aircraft, rockoons are capable of reducing the size of rockets and the amount of propellant needed to place payloads into orbit.
The launch vehicle itself is composed of a set of liquid fuel engines that are arranged in a concentric torus-configuration, which are then attached to the central payload. Each torus works as a stage during the rocket’s ascent, which are ignited once it reaches deployment altitude. After all the rocket stages are are finished deploying the payload, they all return to Earth with the balloon where they are recovered.
This also allows for additional flexibility with launches since it means getting above inclement weather, and also ensures that polluting emissions are not added to the lower atmosphere. The use of several torus-shaped stages reduces the chance of damage occurring to the launch vehicle on re-entry, since several small stages experience less in the way of air friction and heat than larger rocket states.
There is the added benefit of there being less chance of damage. Oftentimes, satellites have fold-out solar panels and science instruments that have to be tucked away to be able to fit inside the cargo hold of a launch vehicle. But with the Bloostar, they can be attached to the flat front end, and will experience less in the way of launch stress since they are floated into space instead of accelerated to escape velocity.
For the sake of their test flight, the Bloostar’s first-stage was elevated to an altitude of 25 km (15.5 mi) above sea level, a little over halfway towards their maximum deployment height. Once there, the launch vehicle conducted a successful ignition test. In addition to being a crucial milestone in the development of the prototype, the flight provided an opportunity to test several key subsystems and steps that will come into play.
These included the craft’s telemetry systems, which needed to be tested in space. There was also the controlled ignition sequence and stabilization systems of the rocket, the launch sequence, the deployment of its parachute deployment, and finally, recovery of the engines at sea. And according to a news release issued by the company on Monday, March 13th, “All these goals were achieved in full.”
This test was a first for the aerospace industry, as Zero2Infinity is currently the only company using stratospheric balloons as a first-stage vehicle. And already, the company states that it has garnered its fair share of interest from leading satellite developers, claiming that they have “gathered upwards of 250 million Euros in Letters of Intent for future launches.”
In addition to Bloostar, the company also has a space tourism program in the works. Known as “Bloon“, this service will offer clients the ability to travel to near-space aboard a stratospheric balloon for a chance to see Earth from suborbit. The purpose here is not just leisure, but to inspire people to appreciate the planet as a whole and help to protect it.
And then there’s Elevate, which is the company’s service for launching communications and weather-monitoring satellites, science experiments, stratospheric platforms, and other payloads to sub-orbital space. One of the more interesting packages they deployed in recent years was a Barbie doll in October of 2016, as part of Mattel’s “Barbie to Space” PR campaign.
There is no doubt that the commercial aerospace sector (aka. NewSpace) plays an important role in the era of renewed space exploration. Whereas the Space Race was characterized by fierce competition between two rival superpowers and their respective federal space agencies, the new era is characterized by cooperation between multiple space agencies and (for he most part) healthy competition in the private sector.
With the development of reusable rockets, reusable launch components, and now reusable “rockoons”, the costs of exploiting Low-Earth Orbit are dropping, and space itself is becoming far more accessible.
Returning to the Moon has been the fevered dream of many scientists and astronauts. Ever since the Apollo Program culminated with the first astronauts setting foot on the Moon on July 20th, 1969, we have been looking for ways to go back to the Moon… and to stay there. In that time, multiple proposals have been drafted and considered. But in every case, these plans failed, despite the brave words and bold pledges made.
However, in a workshop that took place in August of 2014, representatives from NASA met with Harvard geneticist George Church, Peter Diamandis from the X Prize Foundation and other parties invested in space exploration to discuss low-cost options for returning to the Moon. The papers, which were recently made available in a special issue of New Space, describe how a settlement could be built on the Moon by 2022, and for the comparatively low cost of $10 billion.