Virgin Galactic lit up SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor for the first time in the skies over New Mexico today, but only for an instant before the engine shut down and the plane glided back to a safe landing at Spaceport America.
The flight test team had hoped that the SpaceShipTwo craft known as VSS Unity might make it all the way to the 50-mile space milestone with two test pilots at the controls. Unity has made it that high up twice before, in 2018 and 2019, when the test operation was based at Mojave Air and Space Port in California — but this was the first powered test flight planned since operations moved to 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!
Virgin Galactic has reached another milestone in their fight test program. The VSS Unity spacecraft carried a third crew member on board, in its fifth rocket-powered test flight. It was the second time that the spacecraft reached space.
When it comes to the dream of commercial space exploration and space tourism, a few names really stand out. In addition to Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, you have Richard Branson – the founder and CEO of the Virgin Group. For years, Branson has sought to make space tourism a reality through Virgin Galactic, which would take passengers into suborbit using his SpaceShipTwo class of rocket planes.
Unfortunately, Virgin Galactic suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, at the same time that competitors like SpaceX and Blue Origin emerged as competitors. However, the VSS Unity (part of the Virgin Galactic fleet) recently conducted its second powered test flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port on Tuesday, May 29th. While this test is years behind schedule, it marks a significant step towards Branson’s realization of flying customers to space.
This was the second time that the VSS Unity flew since 2014, when the VSS Enterprise suffered a terrible crash while attempting to land, killing one pilot and injuring the other. The first propulsive test took place two months ago after several additional tests were performed on the craft. And with that last success, Virgin Galactic moved ahead with its second powered test earlier this week.
The focus of the latest test flight was to learn more about how the spaceship handles at supersonic speeds. It was also intended to test the control system’s performance when the vehicle was closer to its ultimate commercial configuration. As the company stated, “This involved shifting the vehicle’s center of gravity rearward via the addition of passenger seats and related equipment.”
This statement is a possible indication that the test program is reaching the final stretch before Virgin Galactic allows passengers on the vehicle. However, the company will need to conduct a full-duration flight (which will include a full-duration burn of its rocket motor) before that can happen. This latest test involved only a partial rocket burn, but nevertheless demonstrated the spacecraft’s capabilities at supersonic speed.
The company live-tweeted the entire event, which began at 8:34 AM with the VSS Unity and its carrier mothership (VMS Eve) taxing out to the runway for final checks. For this flight, the pilots were Dave Mackay and Mark “Forger” Stucky while CJ Sturckow and Nicola Pecile piloted of the carrier aircraft. At 8:42 AM (PDT), both craft lifted off, with the company tweeting, “We have take-off. VMS Eve & VSS Unity have taken to the skies and have begun their climb.”
By 9:43 AM, the company announced that the VSS Unity had detached from the VMS Eve and was “flying free”. What followed was a series of live-tweets that indicated the ignition of the VSS Unity’s rocket motor, the shutting down of the motor, and the raising of the tail fins to the “feathered” re-entry position. By 9:55 AM, the company announced a smooth landing for the VSS Unity, signaling the end of the test.
Branson, who was at the Mojave Air and Space Port for the test, released the following statement shortly thereafter:
“It was great to see our beautiful spaceship back in the air and to share the moment with the talented team who are taking us, step by step, to space. Seeing Unity soar upwards at supersonic speeds is inspiring and absolutely breathtaking. We are getting ever closer to realizing our goals. Congratulations to the whole team!”
Branson was also at the center to take in a tour of the facilities of The Spaceship Company (TSC), a sister company of Virgin Galactic that is responsible for developing Virgin Galactic’s future fleet. While there, Branson viewed the next two spaceships that TSC is currently manufacturing, as well as the production facilities for TSC’s spaceship rocket motors.
With the latest test flight complete, the company’s teams will be reviewing the data from this flight and making preparations for the next flight. No indication has been given as to when that will be, or if this test flight will include a full-duration burn of the motor. However, Branson was very happy with the test results, stating:
“Today we saw VSS Unity in her natural environment, flying fast under rocket power and with a nose pointing firmly towards the black sky of space. The pathway that Unity is forging is one that many thousands of us will take over time, and will help share a perspective that is crucial to solving some of humanity’s toughest challenges on planet Earth.”
Meanwhile, Bezos continues to pursue his plans for sending passengers into orbit using his fleet of New Shepard rockets. And of course, Musk continues to pursue the idea of sending tourists to the Moon and Mars using his Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). And with many other private aerospace ventures looking to provide trips into orbit or to the surface of the Moon, there is sure to be no shortage of options for going into space in the near future!
And be sure to check out this video of the VSS Unity’s second test flight, courtesy of Virgin Galactic:
Like most of us, you probably want to know what it would be like to travel to space. Maybe not to live, but just to visit. You want to be a space tourist. Good news, there are a bunch of companies working hard to give you the opportunity to fly to space. How long until you can buy a ticket?
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!
Stephen Hawking has spent decades theorizing about the Universe. His thinking on black holes, quantum gravity, quantum mechanics, and a long list of other topics, has helped shape our understanding of the cosmos. Now it looks like the man who has spent most of his adult life bound to a wheel-chair will travel to the edge of space.
In an interview with Good Morning Britain, Hawking said “Richard Branson has offered me a seat on Virgin Galactic, and I said yes immediately.” Hawking added that his “three children have brought me great joy—and I can tell you what will make me happy, to travel in space.”
It’s all thanks to Richard Branson and his VSS Unity spaceship, which is still under development by The Spaceship Company. The Unity is designed to launch not from a rocket pad, but from underneath a carrier aircraft. By eliminating enormously expensive rocket launches from the whole endeavour, Branson hopes to make space more accessible to more people.
The Virgin Galactic spacecraft is carried to an altitude of about 50,000 feet, then released from its carrier aircraft. Its rocket fires for about 1 minute, which accelerates the craft to three-and-a-half times the speed of sound, then is shut off. Then, according to Virgin Galactic, passengers will experience a “dramatic transition to silence and to true weightlessness.”
As the video shows, the spacecraft is still in glide testing phase, where it is carried to altitude, then released. There is no rocket burn, and the craft glides down and lands at its base.
This spaceflight won’t be Hawking’s first experience with weightlessness, however. To celebrate his 65th birthday, Hawking travelled on board Zero Gravity Corp’s modified Boeing 727 in 2007. At the time, that zero-g flight was in preparation for a trip into sub-orbital space with Virgin Galactic in 2009. But the development of Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft has suffered setbacks, and the 2009 date was not attainable.
Virgin Galactic’s stated aim is to “democratize space,” albeit at a cost of US $250,000 per person. But somehow I doubt that Hawking will be paying. If anyone has earned a free trip into space, it is Dr. Stephen Hawking.
Guests:This week, we welcome Andrew Helton and Ryan Hamilton, member of the SOFIA Telescope Team.
Andrew is the Instrument Scientist for the Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) dual channel, mid-infrared camera and spectrograph, one of the observatory’s facility-class science instruments.
Ryan is the Instrument Scientist for the upgraded High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera (HAWC+) on board NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).
We’ve had an abundance of news stories for the past few months, and not enough time to get to them all. So we’ve started a new system. Instead of adding all of the stories to the spreadsheet each week, we are now using a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!
We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Google+, Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.