The concept of supersonic transport (SST) has been a part of the commercial flight and aerospace sector since the 1970s. But as the Concorde demonstrated, the technology’s commercial viability has always been hampered by various challenges. For starters, supersonic planes must limit their speed to about 965 km/h (600 mph) over land to prevent damage caused by their sonic booms. Given the potential for flying from New York City to London in about 3.5 hours, which otherwise takes about 8 hours on average, aerospace engineers hope to overcome this problem.
Since 2006, the NASA Commercial Supersonic Technology Project (CSTP) has been researching SST as part of its QueSST mission and the X-59 quiet supersonic aircraft to reduce sonic booms, thus removing a crucial barrier to commercial development. Recently, NASA investigated whether commercial supersonic jets could theoretically travel from one major city to another at speeds between Mach 2 and 4 – 2,470 to 4,940 km/h (1,535 to 3,045 mph) at sea level. These studies concluded that there are potential passenger markets along 50 established routes, which could revolutionize air travel.
The nonprofit research center’s report was released today, on the 54th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It follows up on a similar survey that was done in 2018 to mark NASA’s 60th anniversary.
The earlier survey suggested that slightly more Americans saw monitoring climate change as a top priority (63% vs 62%). This year, the rankings were reversed, with 60% putting cosmic threats at the top of their list, as opposed to 50% for climate concerns. Only 12% of the respondents said sending astronauts to explore the moon was a top priority, and 11% said sending astronauts to Mars led their list. That translates into less support than those missions had five years ago.
The survey, conducted online from May 30 to June 4, is based on responses from 10,329 randomly selected U.S. adults who are part of the research center’s online panel. The results were weighted to reflect current demographics.
Reusable launch vehicles have been a boon for the commercial space industry. By recovering and refurbishing the first stages of rockets, launch providers have dramatically reduced the cost of sending payloads and even crew to space. Beyond first-stage boosters, there are efforts to make rockets entirely reusable, from second stages to payload fairings. There are currently multiple strategies for booster recovery, including mid-air retrieval using helicopters and nets. Still, the favored method involves boosters returning to a landing pad under their own power (the boost-back and landing maneuver).
This strategy requires additional rocket propellant for the booster to land again, which comes at the expense of payload mass and performance for the ascent mission. As an alternative, researchers from the National Office Of Aerospace Studies And Research (ONERA) propose two new types of strategies that would allow boosters to return to their launch site. These are known as “glide-back” and “fly-back” architectures, both of which involve boosters with lifting surfaces (fins and wings) performing vertical takeoff and horizontal landing (VTVL) maneuvers.
United Launch Alliance (ULA) is the oldest commercial space company in the U.S., with over 150 consecutive launches to its credit. For almost two decades, the company has been providing launch services using the expendable Delta II, Delta IV, and Atlas V rockets. Faced with growing competition and political pressure, ULA began working on a new heavy-launch vehicle, the Vulcanrocket, in 2014. Once realized, this rocket will allow the ULA to remain competitive in the burgeoning NewSpace market and meet the needs of the National Security Space Launch (NSSL).
On June 7th, the first stage of the Vulcan successfully test-fired its two Blue Origin BE-4 engines at Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) in Florida. The success of this test, designated Certification-1 (Cert-1), places the ULA on track to launch test its next-generation heavy-launch vehicle. Once realized, the Vulcan rocket will provide services ranging from the deployment of small satellites and payloads to reusable crewed spacecraft, like Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space capsule and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spaceplane.
The commercial space sector (aka. NewSpace) is one of the fastest-growing industries of the 21st century. In the past twenty years, what was once considered an ambitious venture or far-off prospect has become a rapidly-accelerating reality. Today, companies are conducting launches using their own rockets and spacecraft, often from their own facilities, to send everything from satellites and cargo to astronauts (commercial and professional) into space. The growing number of launch providers has also led to a dramatic increase in demand for launch-related services.
This includes retrieval operations designed to provide launch flexibility and safe retrieval. This is the purpose behind The Spaceport Company, a Virginia-based aerospace company dedicated to creating a global network of mobile, sea-based launch and landing site systems. On Monday, May 22nd, the company successfully tested its prototype platform by conducting the first-ever commercial rocket launches from U.S. water. This test demonstrated the potential for mobile sea platforms to ease congestion at on-shore launch facilities and expedite the delivery of payloads to orbit.
SpaceX’s second private astronaut mission to the International Space Station (ISS), Axiom-2 aka Ax-2, which is sponsored Axiom Space, received a “go” for launch from NASA on May 15 followed by a stamp of approval from Mother Nature on May 19, and finally a completion of the Launch Readiness Review (LRR) on May 20. Liftoff is currently scheduled for May 21 at 5:37pm EDT (2:37pm PDT) from NASA Kennedy Space Center’s historic launch complex 39A, which was the launch site for all crewed Apollo-Saturn V launches starting with Apollo 8, along with Skylab, dozens of Space Shuttle launches, and starting in 2017 with SpaceX.
NASA has a long history of crowdsourcing solutions, seeking input from the public, entrepreneurs, and citizen scientists. Currently, the agency is tasked with preparing for the long-awaited return to the Moon (the Artemis Program) and addressing the growing problem of Climate Change. The former entails all manner of requirements, from launch vehicles and human-rated spacecraft to logistical concerns and payload services. The latter calls for advances in climate science, Earth observation, and high-quality data collection.
To enlist the help of entrepreneurs in addressing these challenges, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) has once again teamed up with the world-leading crowdsourcing platform HeroX to launch the NASA Entrepreneurs Challenge. With a total prize purse of $1,000,000, NASA is looking for ideas to develop and commercialize state-of-the-art technology and data usage that advances lunar exploration and climate science. The challenge launched on April 10th and will run until November 29th, after which the winners will be invited to a live pitch event hosted at the Defense TechConnect Innovation Summit and Expo in Washington, D.C.
About a decade ago, the prospect of “asteroid mining” saw a massive surge in interest. This was due largely to the rise of the commercial space sector and the belief that harvesting resources from space would soon become a reality. What had been the stuff of science fiction and futurist predictions was now being talked about seriously in the business sector, with many claiming that the future of resource exploitation and manufacturing lay in space. Since then, there’s been a bit of a cooling off as these hopes failed to materialize in the expected timeframe.
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that a human presence in space will entail harvesting resources from Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and beyond. In a recent paper, a team of researchers from the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China, examined the potential impact of asteroid mining on the global economy. Based on their detailed assessment that includes market forces, environmental impact, asteroid and mineral type, and the scale of mining, they show how asteroid mining can be done in a way that is consistent with the Outer Space Treaty (i.e., for the benefit of all humanity).
Edited on 10/6/22 to add new information from Seradata.
Commercial space company Firefly Aerospace successfully launched its Alpha rocket for the first time last weekend, reaching orbit and deploying three satellites. While the latest determination of the satellites’ orbit reveals they may have not been placed in the correct orbit, the company appears to consider the orbit high enough to be considered a success. But others might not agree.
In April of this year, the first all-private astronaut mission to the International Space Station was successfully conducted when Axiom Space sent four non-NASA astronauts to space during the 17-day Axiom-1 Mission (Ax-1). Based on the endeavor’s success, NASA and Axiom Space have signed an agreement for the second such mission to the ISS, which will take place in the second quarter of 2023.