For today’s commercial space companies providing launch services to orbit, the name of the game is simple: “do it cheaper.” To reduce the costs of launching payloads to space and encourage the commercialization of Low Earth Orbit (LEO), entrepreneurs have turned to everything from reusable rockets and 3-D printing to air-launch vehicles and high-altitude balloons. And yet, there is one concept that truly seems like something out of this world!
This concept is known as a mass accelerator, a kinetic energy space launch system that is an alternative to chemical rockets. In recent news, the commercial space company SpinLaunch conducted the first launch test of its Suborbital Accelerator for the first time. The success of this vertical test is a crucial stepping stone towards the creation of the company’s proposed Orbital Launch System (OLS), which will conduct regular payload launches soon.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane crossed its 50-mile-high space boundary over New Mexico for the first time today, after months of challenges.
The trip by VSS Unity marks the first time a spacecraft has been launched so high from a New Mexico spaceport. Unity passed the 50-mile mark twice during tests at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, in 2018 and 2019. Since then, the plane and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, dubbed VMS Eve, have been transferred to their operational home base at New Mexico’s Spaceport America.
And last week (Monday, August 3rd), the company announced that it had entered into a partnership with engine-maker Rolls-Royce to build a supersonic commercial aircraft that would travel three times the speed of sound (Mach 3). If realized, the proposed aerospace vehicle will carry 19 passengers to altitudes of more than 18,000 meters (60,000 ft) while travelling at speeds 50% faster than the Concorde.
SpaceX has been making some exciting moves this summer. On May 30th, their Crew Dragon spacecraft launched on its historic Demo-2 mission, carrying astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the ISS. They safely returned again on August 2nd, shortly after the SN5 prototype conducted the long-awaited 150 m (500 ft) hop test at the company’s launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
And now, in a move that mirrors what Virgin Galactic is doing at Spaceport America in New Mexico, SpaceX has committed to turning Brownsville – the town nearest to the Boca Chica facility – into its own spaceport. To this end, SpaceX recently posted a job application on its website where they announced they are seeking a Resort Development Manager. Potential applicants should follow the link if they think they’re up to the task!
Beginning in 2017, the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association (ESRA) and Spaceport America came together to launch a competition known as the Spaceport America Cup. This annual event sees academics and industry experts from around the world gather at the world’s first purpose-built spaceport to collaborate, compete, and inspire young people to become the next generation of aerospace engineers.
At the heart of the competition is the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC), where commercial and student teams build and launch-test rockets of their own design. This year’s competition is expected to be very exciting and will see 1,500 international students from over 70 institutions converge on Southern New Mexico this summer to ply their talents and compete for the prestigious Spaceport America Cup!
Since the beginning of the Space Age, scientists have relied on multi-stage rockets in order to put spacecraft and payloads into orbit. The same technology has allowed for missions farther into space, sending robotic spacecraft to every planet in the Solar System, and astronauts to the Moon. But looking to the future, it is clear that new ideas will be needed in order to cut costs and expand launch services.
Hence why the ARCA Space Corporation has developed a concept for a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) rocket. It’s known as the Haas 2CA, the latest in a series of rockets being developed by the New Mexico-based aerospace company. If all goes as planned, this rocket will be the first SSTO rocket in history, meaning it will be able to place payloads and crew into Earth’s orbit relying on only one stage with one engine.
The rocket was unveiled on Tuesday, March 28th, at their company headquarters in Las Cruces. The rocket is currently seeking FAA approval, and ARCA is working diligently to get it ready for its test launch in 2018 – which will take place at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility located on Virginia’s eastern shore. If successful, the company hopes to use this rocket to deploy small satellites to orbit in the coming decade.
Established in 1999 by a group of Romanian rocket enthusiasts (led by company CEO Dumitru Popescu), ARCA’s original focus was on balloon-launched rockets. In the course of the company’s history, ARCA has launched two stratospheric rockets, four large scale stratospheric balloons, and has been awarded some lucrative governmental contracts to test aerospace and space exploration technologies.
In 2003, the company joined the $10 million Ansari X Prize Competition and began work on their first demonstrator rocket. Known as the Demonstrator 2B – a single stage suborbital rocket – the rocket was successfully launched on September 9th, 2004, from Cape Midia Air Force Base. In the years that followed, they expanded their repertoire to include other concepts – like the Helen rocket, the Stabilo crewed vehicle, and the Excelsior Aerospike.
In 2013, ARCA was contracted by the European Space Agency (ESA) to create a Drop Test Vehicle (DTV) that would test the atmospheric deceleration parachutes being used by the Schiaperelli lander (as part of the ExoMars mission). Being the same weight and using the same parachute deployment systems as Schiaperelli, the DTV conducted a freefall exercise which simulated the dynamic pressure conditions of entering the Martian atmosphere
In that same year, ARCA relocated to New Mexico, where they have continued working on their rocket series and other aerospace ventures from their headquarters at the Las Cruces Airport. It was here that they introduced the Haas rocket series – named in honor of Austrian-Romanian rocketry pioneer Conrad Haas – which now consists of the Haas 2B and 2C rockets.
The 2B is a proven concept, designed for suborbital flight for the sake of space tourism. But as of this week, the 2C is now part of ARCA’s rocket family. Relying on single stage and single Executor engine, this rocket will small satellites into orbit. The rocket is fueled by hydrogen peroxide and kerosene (which combines to create a nontoxic fuel), and measures (53 feet) long and (5 feet) in diameter.
The 2C weights about 550 kg (1210 pounds) empty, and 16280 kg (35,887 pounds) when fully fueled. It will also be able to provide 22900 kg (50,500 lbs) of thrust at sea level, and about 33,565 kg (74,000 lbs) in a vacuum. In this configuration, the rocket is capable of delivering 100kg (220lbs) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), at a cost of $1 million per launch (or $10,000/kg; $4,545/lb).
This several times less what SpaceX can do with its Falcon 9 rocket, which can deliver 22,800 km payloads to orbit for $62 million a launch – which works out to about $2719/kg or $1233/lb. However, one must take into account that the Falcon 9 is a heavier launch vehicle, and that there are additional issues that come into play where larger launch vehicles are concerned. As Dumitru Popescu told Universe Today via email:
“With the Haas 2C, the customer can launch on the desired orbit parameter, when he/she wants. Basically, the launch will be tailored on the customer needs. A more fair comparison will be between the Haas 2CA and Falcon 1 and Electron. Falcon 1 had a launch cost of $6.7 millions for a proposed payload of 670kg, or a demonstrated one of 180kg. In the best case scenario, this leads us to the same price of $10,000/kg. In the case of the Electron rocket, the cost per launch is $4.9 million for a 150kg payload. This leads us to a price of a $32.600/kg. Falcon 1, Electron, Haas 2CA have their market and a comparison with a big launcher isn’t fair in my opinion. Overall, if we will be able to keep this price, the Haas 2CA, at $1 million/launch will become the cheapest launcher in history.”
In addition, the Haas 2C rocket benefits from the fact that it is cheaper and easier to manufacture, and that it’s SSTO configuration offers greater flexibility and reliability.
“In the case of staged rockets, we are literally talking about more rockets combined in one vehicle to achieve orbit,” said Popsecu. “It is definitely more cost effective to operate one rocket than a vehicle made of multiple rockets, as it requires less time, less qualified manpower and less demanding transport and launch operations. The SSTO may also offer the possibility to launch from an inland spaceport, as there are no first stages that will fall on the ground after burnout.”
To prepare the rocket for its 2018 launch, ARCA is currently collaborating with NASA through its Cooperative Opportunity Program and with the help of the Ames, Kennedy, Marshall, Stennis, and Johnson Space Centers. Popescu is also entering into discussions with the New Mexico Spaceport Authority to conduct launches from Spaceport America, and is looking to secure a partnership with a US defense agency.
If all goes well, this little aerospace company will be making spaceflight history. As Popescu said in a company press release:
“When the Haas 2CA rocket launches, it will be the first rocket in history to place itself entirely into orbit. This opens new frontiers for exploration of the Solar System as the rocket can be refueled in-orbit and re-utilize its aerospike engine thus eliminating the need for additional upper stages. After the full qualification, the vehicle could be operated from inland spaceports as there are no stages that fall on the ground at burnout. Staged rockets, even though they provide more payload performance for the same takeoff mass, are less reliable because of an increased number of parts due to flight events requested by staging and ignition of the upper stage engine. Also, staged rockets are deemed to be more expensive because they are literally made up of more than one rocket. Manufacturing and assembling more rockets in one launcher requires more, time, money, and personnel. The SSTO technology, once implemented, will increase the space flight responsiveness and lower the cost to values expected by the industry for decades. This rocket will also be the fastest vehicle to reach orbit, taking less than 5 minutes.”
In addition, the aerospace industry will have another company looking to lower the costs of launches and expanding domestic launch capability. Be sure to check out the company’s video detailing the Haas 2C and its unique characteristics:
Let yourself imagine a spaceport. I bet you put a grand concourse in the center with a fine selection of rockets descending and ascending together with space planes making their final approaches or taking off to worlds who knows where? Perhaps just behind snaking off toward the horizon is a common asphalt road with autonomous electric cars whizzing their passengers to and from the concourse. And assuredly there’s an above ground or below ground rail system that provides convenient access to those in the nearby city. At least that’s what my imagination pictures.
While my idea of space transportation may seem somewhat farfetched, the idea of a spaceport isn’t. Actually the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States of America has already licensed 10 spaceports or Launch Site Operators as they call them. Interestingly the same FAA also licenses 12 Active Launch providers.
Curious that NASA isn’t on the list of licensed Active Launchers. I wonder if they will be allowed to launch their new Space Launch System. Anyway, there’s been another treat for us in that the FAA has recently approved a commercial venture to the Moon. Can this be any more exciting? It seems that we’ve made the grade with space ports launchers and we’ve become a space faring species. There’s nothing farfetched about this reality.
Let’s dig a little deeper. The commercial company is Moon Express. It’s not surprising that they’ve sought approval as their ultimate goal is to win the Google Lunar X Prize. Presumably if they purchase a launch from the United States then they need a licensed one. And the launch company will only loft the Moon Express robot to the Moon with permission.
Now this is where things get a bit interesting. Moon Express has mentioned that they will use Rocket Lab to hurl their robot to the Moon. But Rocket Lab launches from New Zealand and they aren’t on the FAA list of Active Launchers. You may understand more by perusing the licensing. It seems that any United States citizen must comply with the rules wherever in the world they launch. Nevertheless it seems that we can sleep with warm hearts as apparently our space faring dreams are coming to fruition.
Yet I wonder if all really is the lotus lands that it seems. For one, why does the FAA or any government on Earth have any jurisdictional rights on accessing the Moon? Did the Chang’e 3 team need permission before they flew? I think not.
Further, does granting permission make the granter liable? Do you have any memories of the furor over the Skylab vessel re-entering on top of Australia in 1979? And whether the United States was found liable? I guess this is where 51 USC Code 50914 comes in. It shows that the licensing is apparently all about managing the risk. Does this imply that the existing judicial structure on Earth is inappropriate for space? Can you imagine the fun that journalists would have if they heard of a theft occurring on the International Space Station? Who would investigate? Who would oversee the trial and make judgement? There are some big questions remaining to be answered before people can sit idly watching rockets roar up from a spaceport with their loved ones safely tucked in.
Nevertheless while uncertainties remain, we are seeing progress. We see the basis of an international legal system. We see space transportation infrastructure that serves the customer rather than the scientist. We see individuals achieving feats that previously were the sole domain of governments. So I say, “Yes imagine your spaceport! Believe in the ability to travel far above Earth and into the furthest reaches of our solar system. Believe in a future of our making.”
Over the weekend Armadillo Aerospace successfully launched an advanced sounding rocket from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The launch took place on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011 at 11:00 a.m. (MST), and the STIG A rocket reached its expected sub-orbital altitude of 41.91 km (137,500 feet). Below is an image of Earth taken by a camera on board the rocket.
This latest launch is the thirteenth vertical launch test from the Spaceport America Vertical Launch Complex since 2006.
“This successful test of our “STIG A” reusable sub-orbital rocket technology represents major progress for the Armadillo Aerospace flight test program,” said Neil Milburn, Vice President of Program Management at Armadillo Aerospace. “The flight successfully demonstrated many of the technologies that we need for our manned sub-orbital program.”
The STIG is a long, sleek rocket designed for lower drag, high speed, high altitude flights. This rocket is aerodynamically optimized for high altitude flights with long 15 inches (38 cm) diameter cylindrical tanks instead of larger spherical tanks.
Armadillo requested that the test flight be a non-public, unpublished event, as the company is testing proprietary advanced launch technologies.
The company is one of the leading developers of reusable rocket-powered vehicles and plans to provide a platform for civilian access to suborbital space via a partnership with Space Adventures, Ltd. Armadillo Aerospace has flown over 200 flight tests with over a dozen different vehicles.
On board the rocket was an experiment designed, built, tested, integrated, and performed by a team of undergraduate students at the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics in the College of Engineering at Purdue University. The experiment studied a liquid and gas flow process that is sensitive to the gravity and acceleration levels encountered during spaceflight.
“Spaceport America has been an ideal launch facility for this kind of vehicle R&D testing activity,” said John Carmack, President and CTO of Armadillo Aerospace.
Officials from the spaceport were please at the launch’s success as well.
“Spaceport America continues to set the precedent for safe, efficient, effective service for commercial spaceflight customers,” said NMSA Executive Director Christine Anderson. “We are extremely pleased to support Armadillo Aerospace as they conduct their high altitude vehicle flight testing, and look forward to hosting their NASA-funded suborbital research launches.”