The days of blasting off into the temporary weightlessness of suborbital space are fast approaching—for people with the right stuff in their bank accounts, anyway. Some scientists fear, though, that once the space tourism business becomes established, a steady train of people hurtling into euphoria at the borderline of space could have climactic consequences down here on the surface.
They’re talking about soot. Soot or black carbon, which comes from fuel that does not burn completely, ought to be a more high-profile climate villain than it is, and it would be easier to contain than the carbon dioxide emissions we’re more worried about. According to a team led by Martin Ross, craft flying at such great heights would leave a trail of soot that wind and weather patterns could not reach, leaving it to hang around there and interfere with climate patterns. They published their model (paper in press) of this scenario in Geophysical Research Letters.
Ross’ team presumed 1,000 suborbital flights a year by a decade from now, and plugged in the estimated emissions to see what would happen. They modeled all the flights as coming over Spaceport America, the Virgin Galactic-backed New Mexico spaceport.
Just two weeks after the first solo flight of Virgin Galactic’s space tourist ship, the company’s bigwigs gathered again to celebrate the completion of the two-mile, 200-foot wide runway of the world’s first commercial spaceport.
Spaceport America is the world’s first facility designed specifically to launch commercial spacecraft. The celebration of its nearly-two-mile-long runway comes less than two weeks after another major step for Virgin Galactic: the first solo glide flight of its space tourism rocket ship. [ABC News]
Virgin Galactic has taken its suborbital spaceship, the VSS Enterprise, for its first spin. On Sunday, the Enterprise was carried to an altitude of 45,000 feet by a larger “mothership,” and was then successfully released for a long, slow glide back to the Mojave Air and Space Port. The solo test flight is a step towards the day when the Enterprise will carry not only test pilots but also six space tourists up to the edge of space, where they’ll experience a few precious moments of weightlessness and a killer view.
When it eventually enters service, Enterprise will be carried to its launch altitude by the “Eve” carrier plane before being released in mid-air. Enterprise will then ignite its single hybrid rocket engine to make the ascent to space. Although Eve and Enterprise have made several test flights together, Sunday was the first time the spaceplane had been released at altitude. [BBC News]
Hit the jump for more info and video footage of the historic flight.
Russian company Orbital Technologies has announced its plans to build a commercial space station (to be named the commercial space station, if you can believe that), which would also serve as a “space-hotel” for visiting tourists. The company claims the venture will launch in 2016.
“Once launched and operational, the CSS will provide a unique destination for commercial, state and private spaceflight exploration missions,” said Sergey Kostenko, chief executive of Orbital Technologies. [Los Angeles Times]
The station will be able to host up to seven passengers in its homey capsule, free of extraneous scientific instruments and pesky astronauts and cosmonauts. It will be built by RSC Energia, the same company that builds the Soyuz passenger capsules and the Progress cargo ships used by the Russian space agency. It will follow the same orbit as the International Space Station, and will be able to dock with shuttles from around the world.
Virgin Galactic’s newest spacecraft has taken to the skies in its first successful test flight. Billionaire founder Richard Branson unveiled and christened the VSS Enterprise (previously called SpaceShipTwo) in December, and yesterday it soared 45,000 feet for about three hours above the Mojave Desert in California.
That altitude pales in comparison to Branson’s goal. When Virgin Galactic is ready for a true flight, the Enterprise and its carrier vehicle will fly to even higher heights, where the Enterprise will separate and blast off on its own. The craft will climb to about 60 miles above the Earth’s surface. At that suborbital altitude, passengers will experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth. The price for the experience: $200,000 [Los Angeles Times]. Despite the steep price tag, more than 300 people have already signed up for their chance to reach space. CNN reports that 80,000 are on the waiting list, so even if you consider 200 grand a pittance, you might have to wait.
Enterprise was designed and built by Burt Rutan, founder of Mojave-based Scaled Composites, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman [Reuters]. Test flights continue through next year, and Branson wants to begin commercial operations in 2012.
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Image: Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg
Billionaire Richard Branson’s latest creation met the press today in the California desert. Branson and legendary designer Burt Rutan, whose SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X-prize for reaching suborbital space five years ago, unveiled SpaceShipTwo in Mojave, California.
Branson’s company Virgin Galactic says the craft could carry space-faring tourists soon. Seating six passengers and two pilots, SpaceShipTwo will begin test flights next year with commercial launchings carrying paying customers starting after government regulatory requirements are met. Tickets for a sub-orbital up-and-down flight are expected to run about $200,000 a seat for the initial flights [CNET].
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, has been working on top secret rocket plans that may one day carry passengers on suborbital flights that reach just beyond the boundary of outer space. In hush-hush surroundings, the Bezos Blue Origin business plan has been resolute in developing its New Shepard, a vertical takeoff and landing rocket. The plan: To develop a craft that can routinely fly multiple astronauts into suborbital space at competitive prices [SPACE.com]. The flights would reach up to 62 miles in the air, which would allow the passengers to see the blue curve of the Earth (which you, the reader, can see for free atop this post) and experience momentary weightlessness. Bezos has been conducting flight tests on his private Texas ranch, but beyond these general plans, no one really knew what the billionaire might have up his sleeve—until now.
The publicity shy Blue Origin recently announced that it has selected three research payloads—basically zero-G flight experiments—to fly aboard the New Shepard rocket.
The three experiments are:
A laser-powered robot took a climb up a cable in the Mohave Desert in Wednesday, and pushed ahead the sci-fi inspired notion of a space elevator capable of lifting astronauts, cargo, and even tourists up into orbit. The robot, built by LaserMotive of Seattle, whizzed up 2,953 feet (nearly 1 kilometer) in about four minutes, which qualifies the team for at least $900,000 of the $2 million in prizes offered in the NASA-backed Space Elevator Games.
Theorized in the 1960s and then popularized by Arthur C. Clarke’s 1979 novel “The Fountains of Paradise,” space elevators are envisioned as a way to gain access to space without the risk and expense of rockets. Instead, electrically powered vehicles would run up and down a cable anchored to a ground structure and extending thousands of miles up to a mass in geosynchronous orbit — the kind of orbit communications satellites are placed in to stay over a fixed spot on the Earth [AP].
The LaserMotive vehicle that climbed up the cable (held by a hovering helicopter) was powered by a system that resembles an upside-down solar power mechanism. Laser beams on the ground were fired up at the ascending craft and hit its photovoltaic cells–like those used in solar panels–in a process known as “power beaming.” LaserMotive will have a chance to improve its vehicle’s speed at another trial today, and other teams will also be vying for prizes.
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Image: Space Elevator Games. The LaserMotive vehicle gets weighed in.
Five years after the dawn of the new private-sector space age, New Mexico officials broke ground on Spaceport America, the $200 million project that is destined to be a hub for wealthy space tourists and space entrepreneurs of all stripes. The new space age dates back to June 21, 2004, when the SpaceShipOne rocket plane became the first privately developed craft to carry a civilian astronaut into outer space [MSNBC]. Now, the company Virgin Galactic is hard at work on SpaceShipTwo, which may be ready to carry paying passengers to the edge of space in 2011 or 2012.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic plans to base its operations at Spaceport America, but New Mexico officials hope the space terminal will attract other innovative businesses as well. Steve Landeene, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, said: “The future is here and we are not too far off a new age of space. It is not just about private astronauts going up, it is about bringing the cost structure down and about new medicines, solar power in space and the entire range of scientific benefits that can come from it” [BBC News].
The scrappy space start-up Xcor Aerospace is ready to begin selling tickets to tourists who have a hankering to soar 37 miles up to the edge of space, the company announced today. It also presented its first paying customer, whom they hope to send up in 2011: Danish investment banker Per Wimmer, who will pay $95,000 for his suborbital flight. Wimmer seems enthusiastic about Xcor’s plans, but he’s certainly hedging his bet. He is so keen to leave earth’s atmosphere that he has bought another two tickets to space, one with Virgin Galactic and one with rival firm Space Adventures. “It will be a real race to see which of them goes up first – but if it is Xcor, I will become the first affordable space tourist,” he said [Daily Mail].
In the small world of private space companies, Xcor is considered a cheap, no-frills provider. The announced ticket price is about half the $200,000 cost of a suborbital flight aboard Virgin Galactic‘s deluxe SpaceShip Two. That vehicle is expected to bring six passengers aloft at a time, and may let them float around the cabin during the five minutes of weightlessness they’ll experience at the apogee of their flight, 62 miles above the earth’s surface. In contrast, Xcor’s small suborbital vehicle, the Lynx, is a two-seater, and the one paying passenger will stay strapped into the copilot’s seat.