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New Shepard launch
Blue Origin’s New Shepard lifts off on a recent test flight. While the vehicle is still two years from commercial service, it has already flown several research payloads. (credit: Blue Origin)

Suborbital research makes a comeback

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Twenty years ago last month, Peter Diamandis announced plans for a $10-million prize competition, then known simply as the X Prize, for the first commercially-developed suborbital vehicle capable of taking three people to at least 100 kilometers twice within two weeks. That announcement was the genesis for a new era of commercial suborbital vehicles, most notably SpaceShipOne, which won what became known as the Ansari X PRIZE in 2004.

“We’re getting real data from real suborbital flights. The field has arrived,” said Durda.

While the focus of SpaceShipOne and other suborbital vehicles competing in or inspired by the prize was suborbital space tourism, some found that those same vehicles could serve other applications, most notably research. “I think a lot of us had the same thought: that this is the beginning of a new era,” said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) June 2, recalling the optimism immediately after the Ansari X PRIZE was won. “What was even more exciting for me in recent years was the fact that we have seen a new application develop. It’s not just for tourists. It’s for researchers and educators as well.”

Stern, looking to build interest in research applications for suborbital vehicles, organized the first Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) in early 2010. That conference, and the ones that followed in the next few years, were successful in generating interest—too successful, perhaps. Interest in flying suborbital vehicles outpaced the development of those vehicles, whose completion fell well behind the optimistic schedules of several years earlier.

Now, though, the tide may be changing in favor of suborbital research again. NSRC, which went on hiatus after a 2013 meeting, was back last week in Colorado as suborbital vehicle companies make renewed progress, most notably Blue Origin’s series of New Shepard test flights. That, coupled with a broader definition of what constitutes suborbital research beyond the vision of flights to the edge of space, appears to be creating new interest and enthusiasm for suborbital research.

Research results

A key message from this year’s conference, held in the Denver suburb of Broomfield, Colorado, was that research on suborbital vehicles was not something still off on the horizon, but an activity taking place now. “We’re getting real data from real suborbital flights. The field has arrived,” said Dan Durda of SwRI during a June 4 panel session.

Durda discussed an experiment that he flew on the latest New Shepard suborbital flight, two months ago. The Box of Rocks Experiment (BORE) was just that: a box (two boxes, actually) containing small rocks, monitored by cameras. Durda designed the experiment to better understand what conditions are like on the surface of small asteroids, where the surface gravity is measured in thousands of a g. “It’s a surface environment that we have pretty much no intuitive understand for,” he said.

BORE was signed to measure how rocks settled out in “milli-g” conditions as New Shepard ended its several minutes of microgravity conditions as its crew capsule began reentry. “Actually, I didn’t care about the three minutes of zero-g. I wanted those several seconds just as we’re entering the atmosphere and you start to very cleanly pile on those asteroid-like accelerations to watch the rocks settle,” he said.

The analysis of the data collected on that flight is ongoing, Durda said, but he was satisfied with the flight. “It was a beautiful success,” he said. “BORE performed beautifully.”

On the same flight was a similar experiment to test the behavior of dust particles during an impact by a larger (centimeter-sixed) particle. The Collisions into Dust Experiment, or COLLIDE, was based on earlier versions that flew on the shuttle, but takes advantage of more advanced technology to monitor the behavior of dust particles in those low-velocity collisions, said Josh Colwell of the University of Central Florida.

Like Durda, Colwell was pleased with the flight, even as analysis of the data is in progress. “It was a very, very cool experience,” he said of the flight.

The microgravity on the New Shepard suborbital flight is both longer and cleaner than what’s possible from parabolic aircraft flights. “The suborbital environment enables us to get into basically a region of parameter space that is not accessible to us in some of the other environments,” Colwell said.

While analysis of data from the BORE and COLLIDE continues, other suborbital research has already resulted in success stories in the area of technology development using platforms that don’t require the high altitudes and microgravity time offered by vehicles like New Shepard.

“This is a technology that is going to open up a lot more value out of this multibillion-dollar mission,” Masten Space’s Mahoney said, “that wouldn’t have happened without this innovative approach.”

At a press conference during NSRC, Masten Space Systems announced that a technology to improve the landing accuracy of future Mars missions, previously tested on Masten’s low-altitude vertical takeoff and landing vehicles, has been accepted for use by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for use on the Mars 2020 rover mission.

That technology, known as Terrain Relative Navigation, was tested on a series of Masten test flights. “What that is going to do, the impact of Terrain Relative Navigation on the next Mars mission, is huge,” said Sean Mahoney, CEO of Masten.

Using Terrain Relative Navigation, Mahoney argued, will open up additional landing sites on Mars for that 2020 mission by giving the lander the ability to more precisely navigate towards a selected site. “This is a technology that is going to open up a lot more value out of this multibillion-dollar mission,” he said, “that wouldn’t have happened without this innovative approach.”

Alan Stern expresses his optimism for the future of commercial suborbital research at the end of the 2016 NSRC meeting June 4. (credit: J. Foust)

A mixed future

The success stories shared at NSRC indicated that some vehicles are already supporting suborbital research flights, with others not far behind. Much of the attention, not surprising, focused on Blue Origin, the first to achieve what some at the conference called “classical suborbital” spaceflights.

Another New Shepard test flight is coming up, Blue Origin’s Brett Alexander said at the conference June 2. That test will feature some changes from the previous one, most notably disabling one of the three main parachutes used to slow the crew capsule to test the ability of the capsule to safely land should one malfunction during a flight.

Alexander wasn’t specific about when that flight would take place, beyond “the next short while.” In an email newsletter the next day, company founder Jeff Bezos wrote that the flight “will likely be before the end of the month.” Bezos also suggested that, like the April flight but unlike previous tests, the company would provide advance notice of the test flight.

“The last three flights were sort of on six-week centers—it’s been a couple of months since we’ve flown—so they’ll be on that basic pace,” Alexander said of future test flights. “I wouldn’t expect them to rapidly ramp up.”

Virgin Galactic also says it’s making progress on SpaceShipTwo, showing off at the conference a new photo of the second SpaceShipTwo undergoing vibration testing along with its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo. “We do hope to be up in the skies again some time pretty soon,” said Virgin Galactic vice president Will Pomerantz, declining, as the company traditionally does, to provide specific dates.

Virgin Galactic already has one research flight planned for SpaceShipTwo under NASA’s Flight Opportunities program. (Blue Origin officially joined that program, where NASA provides suborbital and high-altitude balloon flights for research payloads, on June 2 in an announcement made at NSRC.) Pomerantz said it’s possible that Virgin might fly some “pathfinder” payloads during the test flight program, much as Blue Origin is currently doing on New Shepard, but added the company has not made a decision on whether to do so yet.

“We do hope to be up in the skies again some time pretty soon,” said Virgin Galactic vice president Will Pomerantz.

Another classical suborbital company was also scheduled to present at the conference. However, less than a week before the event, XCOR Aerospace laid off a large fraction of its workforce (the company declined to state a number, but reports suggested that about 25 of its 50–60 employees lost their jobs.) Hardest hit was Lynx, its suborbital spaceplane that had been in development for several years. The company cancelled its NSRC appearance.

In a May 31 statement, XCOR executives confirmed the layoffs, saying that the company decided to concentrate its resources on a liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen (LOX/LH2) engine it is developing under a contract with United Launch Alliance. “Based on the immediate engine opportunities presented to us, we decided we needed to fully focus on the LH2 program for the forthcoming period,” Jay Gibson, president and CEO of XCOR, said in the statement.

Gibson added that XCOR was not abandoning the Lynx program. “We are convinced that this effort will ensure that XCOR is better positioned to finish the Lynx Project in a more efficient, reliable and safer manner,” he said. However, most industry observers expect the Lynx to be on indefinite hold, with many skeptical that it will ever be completed.

Diversity and optimism

At the same time, though, NSRC demonstrated that the suborbital research field is not strictly reliant on that “classical suborbital” vehicle that flies briefly into space and back. Masten, for example, has found success with vehicles that fly at relatively low altitudes, but take off and land vertically and fly frequently—in some cases several times in one day.

Masten is keeping high-altitude suborbital vehicles in mind for future development, although Mahoney said that it is not a near-term priority. “That is a thing that is on our roadmap,” he said. “The need for it has not been sufficient yet to be able to bring that into existence.”

Two other companies, Near Space Corporation and World View Enterprises, are lining up customers to carry payloads on high altitude balloons, where they can stay in the stratosphere for hours or days. Both of those companies have NASA Flight Opportunities contracts.

“I think the future is very bright,” Stern said, “and I think we’ve turned a corner.”

That interest in research caused World View to change its business plans, emphasizing research and other applications that don’t require people over flying tourists. “We did start out as a purely space tourism business,” said Jane Poynter, CEO of World View, at a June 2 press conference. “After we made our initial announcement, we were overwhelmed by the amount of interest in using this platform for a variety of applications. It was the market demand that drove us to broaden the charter of our business.”

Stern, closing out the conference June 4, argued that despite delays in the industry overall and setbacks at companies like XCOR, the prospects for commercial suborbital research were looking good.

“I know in the weeks leading up to NSRC, and even at the meeting, some of you were talking about some of your disappointments over the years with the suborbital industry,” he said. “From my perspective, these things are normal. Spaceflight is hard—all of you involved in spaceflight know it’s hard—and you know it takes persistence.”

“I think the future is very bright,” he said, “and I think we’ve turned a corner.”