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.

StarFighters, Inc. – The Supersonic Research Fleet Expands

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Move over, Buck Rogers… The time has come for StarFighters, Inc.! Just a few days ago, the exclusive contingent’s final forces assembled at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ready to go on duty with a private company which will deploy them for research and microgravity training. Purchased from the Italian Air Force, these five new aircraft began their life as F-104 fighters, but as part of StarFighters, Inc. will pursue different venues as members of a nine plane squadron… One with a more peaceful goal.

According to owner Rick Svetkoff, this means there will always be aircraft available to fly for not only a variety of customers, but a variety of missions as well. The company will also be able to offer an additional aircraft on a single mission to serve as a “chase plane” to photographically document experiments.

“Now we’re in a position where we can really start operations,” Svetkoff said. “Before, we couldn’t do a lot of things we wanted to do.”

Under an agreement with Kennedy Space Center, StarFighters Inc. calls a hangar at the Shuttle Landing Facility home. The company’s goal is to serve as a research and development platform – one whose repertoire expands across a variety of venues such as “evaluating rocket and spacecraft in high-stress environments including high-acceleration and microgravity”. At this time, Embry-Riddle University and Space Florida are already on-board with the team.

One of the existing fleet of F-104 Starfighters is joined by the newer, but not yet assembled, jets the company just bought from Italy. Photo credit: NASA/Frankie Martin

These are not just any planes, however. The F-104s are capable of reaching an altitude of around 70,000 feet and speeds exceeding Mach 2. This means they can be engaged to launch small satellites into space and the 19-foot-long, 900-pound rocket lodged under the wings has already been tested. Additional test flights with the rocket will be carried out in February and the first launch is expected to happen during this summer. These launches are designed to take less bulky experiments into space, but not orbit. Once completed, the rocket will then parachute down to Earth and be retrieved from the ocean for recycling. According to Svetkoff, the company expects to use StarFighters to launch around 100 suborbital missions annually and in less than a year should begin launching nanosatellites with a similar method.

Starfighters pilot and owner Rick Svetkoff in the cockpit of one of the Starfighters already in service with the company. Photo credit: NASA/Gianni M. Woods

As futuristic as its name sounds, the F-104 Starfighter isn’t new. It’s a decades-old, supersonic aircraft which originally served during the Cold War to intercept Soviet aircraft. It was once dubbed “the missile with a man in it” because of its fast speeds and trim design. It was the concept developed by Lockheed Martin’s Kelly Johnson – who also designed the SR-71 and U-2. Some 50 years ago, the Starfighter also served NASA by helping to train astronauts in microgravity and sharpening their skills in high-speed flight.

“Anything an F-16 or an F-18 can do, we can do with this aircraft, performance-wise,” said Svetkoff who also commented that research and development flights could add another 100 missions to the StarFighter’s log annually.

A truck delivers an F-104 Starfighter to the hangar at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida where Starfighters Inc. operates. Photo credit: NASA/Frankie Martin

It’s a great idea that isn’t going to end with just some experiments, though. As we progress and private companies realize the opportunities of working with NASA and launching humans into space, StarFighters can be used to train for microgravity and other implications – just as they have in the past. For now, the focus is on getting the planes cleaned and ready for work. This means careful disassembly of engines and other parts, cleaning and reassembly. The StarFighters will also get updated, too. There are new avionics packages available which will add digital displays. It may take as long as three months to complete the first, but the entire fleet should be ready in about six months.

“This shows a serious commitment,” concludes Svetkoff.

Original Story Source: NASA Kennedy Space Center News.