Virgin Galactic’s Long Road To Commercial Spaceflight

To hear founder Richard Branson tell it, the first operational flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo has been 18 months out since at least 2008. But a series of delays, technical glitches, and several tragic accidents have continually pushed the date back to the point that many have wondered if it will ever happen at all. The company’s glacial pace has only been made more obvious when compared with their rivals in the commercial spaceflight field such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, which have made incredible leaps in bounds in the last decade.

Richard Branson watching Unity’s test flight.

But now, at long last, it seems like Branson’s suborbital spaceplane might finally start generating some income for the fledgling company. Their recent successful test flight, while technically the company’s third to reach space, represents an important milestone on the road to commercial service. Not only did it prove that changes made to Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Unity in response to issues identified during last year’s aborted flight were successful, but it was the first full duration mission to fly from Spaceport America, the company’s new operational base in New Mexico.

The data collected from this flight, which took pilots Frederick “CJ” Sturckow and Dave Mackay to an altitude of 89.23 kilometers (55.45 miles), will be thoroughly reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration as part of the process to get the vehicle licensed for commercial service. The next flight will have four Virgin Galactic employees join the pilots, to test the craft’s performance when loaded with passengers. Finally, Branson himself will ride to the edge of space on Unity’s final test flight as a public demonstration of his faith in the vehicle.

If all goes according to plan, the whole process should be wrapped up before the end of the year. At that point, between the government contracts Virgin Galactic has secured for testing equipment and training astronauts in a weightless environment, and the backlog of more than 600 paying passengers, the company should be bringing in millions of dollars in revenue with each flight.

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Spacing Out: StarShip Explodes (Again), Passenger Space Flight, Space Bugs, Astronaut Bone, And Martian Water

This time I promise I only have a couple of stories from Elon Musk’s company. SpaceX’s latest Starship test launch ended in another explosion, proving that space hardware remains hard to get right. We’ll keep watching as they keep launching, and it can’t be long until they’ve ironed out all the problems. Meanwhile there’s brighter news from the company’s Crew Dragon, a modified version of the capsule with the forward docking ring replaced by a transparent dome is planned for launch in September with the company’s first flight carrying civilian passengers. It’s doubtless unwelcome news for Virgin Galactic, whose suborbital passenger flights are edging closer to reality with the unveiling of their first SpaceShip III craft. Finally, a Falcon 9 upper stage broke up on re-entry over the northwestern USA, giving observers on the ground a spactacular show.

Spectacular view of the Falcon 9 debris. Via Lu Jerz

Meanwhile up there in orbit there have been found on the ISS some strains of bacteria previously unknown to scientists on Earth, but it’s not yet time to panic about Mutant Bugs From Space. It seems these bacteria are of a type that is essential in the growing of plants, so it’s likely they originally hitched a ride up with one of the several plant-growing experiments that have taken place over the station’s lifetime. Staying on the ISS, astronauts visiting the station have been at the centre of a recently published study looking at loss of bone density over long periods in space. The bone experts found that bone density could still be lost despite the astronauts’ in-flight exercise programs, and concluded that exercise regimes pre-flight should be taken into account for future in-orbit exercise planning.

Further away from Earth, the ESA Mars Express satellite has been used for a multi-year study of water loss to space from the Martian atmosphere. The ESA scientists identified the seasonal mechanism that leads to the planet’s upper atmosphere having an excess of water and in particular the effect of the periodic planet-wide dust storms on accelerating water loss, but failed to account for the water that they estimate Mars must have lost over its history. From a study of water-created surface features they can estimate how much liquid the planet once had, yet the atmospheric losses fail to account for it all. Has it disappeared underground? More studies are required before we’ll have an answer.

The exciting news over the coming days will no doubt be the Ingenuity Martian helicopter, which we have seen slowly unfolding itself prior to unloading from the belly of the Perseverence rover. If all goes according to plan the little craft will be set down before the rover trundles off to a safe distance, and the historic flight will take place on April 8th. We’ll be on the edges of our seats, and no doubt you will be, too.

Spacing Out: OneWeb Rescue, Starlink Base Stations, And Rocket Tests

Another couple of weeks, and a fresh crop of space news to run through as a quick briefing of the latest in the skies above us.

OneWeb's most recent launch, from Baikonur on the 21st of March 2020.
OneWeb’s most recent launch, from Baikonur on the 21st of March 2020. (OneWeb)

The global positioning orbits are getting pretty crowded, with GPS, Russia’s GLONASS, the EU’s Galileo, Japan’s QZSS, and now with the launch of the final satellite in their constellation, China’s BeiDou. As if five were not enough the chance that they might be joined by a sixth constellation from the United Kingdom resurfaced this week, as the UK government is expressing interest in supporting a rescue package for the troubled satellite broadband provider OneWeb. The idea of an independent GPS competitor from a post-Brexit UK has been bouncing around for a couple of years now, and on the face of it until this opportune chance to purchase an “oven ready” satellite constellation might deliver a route to incorporating a positioning payload into their design. The Guardian has its doubts, lining up a bevvy of scientists to point out the rather obvious fact that a low-earth-orbit satellite broadband platform is a very different prospect to a much-higher-orbiting global positioning platform. Despite the country possessing the expertise through its work on Galileo then it remains to be seen whether a OneWeb purchase would be a stroke of genius or a white elephant. Readers with long memories will know that British government investment in space has had its upsets before.

Happily for Brits, not all space endeavours from their islands end in ignominious retreat. Skyrora have scored another milestone, launching the first ever rocket skywards from the Shetland Islands. The Skylark Nano is a relatively tiny craft at only 2m high, and gathered research data during its flight to an altitude of 6km. We’ve followed their work before, including their testing in May of a Skylark L rocket on the Scottish mainland with a view to achieving launch capability in 2023.

A Starlink phased array end user antenna, spotted in Winsconsin. (darkpenguin22)
A Starlink phased array end user antenna, spotted in Winsconsin. (darkpenguin22)

SpaceX’s Starlink is never far away from the news, with a fresh set of launches delayed for extra pre-launch tests, and the prospect of signing up to be considered for the space broadband firm’s beta test. Of more interest for Hackaday readers though are a few shots of prototype Starlink ground stations and user terminals that have made it online, on the roof of a Tesla Gigafactory and at a SpaceX facility in Wisconsin. What can be seen are roughly 1.5m radomes for the ground stations and much smaller dinner-plate-sized enclosed arrays for the user terminals. The latter are particularly fascinating as they conceal computer-controlled phased arrays for tracking the constellation as it passes overhead. This is a technology more at home in billion-dollar military radars than consumer devices, so getting it to work on a budget that can put it on a roof anywhere in the world must be a challenge for the Starlink engineers. We can’t wait to see the inevitable eventual teardown when it comes.

Elsewhere, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two completed its second glide test over its Mojave Spaceport home since being grounded in 2019 for extensive refitting, and is now said to be ready for powered tests leading to eventual commercial service giving the extremely well-heeled the chance to float in the zero gravity of suborbital spaceflight. And finally, comes the news that NASA are naming their Washington DC headquarters building for Mary W. Jackson, their first African American female engineer, whose story some of you may be familiar with from the book and film Hidden Figures. The previously unnamed building sits on a section of street named Hidden Figures Way.

Virgin Orbit Readies First Launch

Ever since the Pan Am “Space Clipper” first slid into frame in 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the world has been waiting for the day that privately funded spaceflight would become as routine as air travel. Unfortunately, it’s a dream that’s taken a bit longer to become reality than many would have hoped. The loss of Challenger and Columbia were heartbreaking reminders that travel amongst the stars is not for the faint of heart or the ill-equipped, and pushed commercial investment in space back by decades.

Although Pan Am has since folded, we now have a number of companies working hard towards making the dream of commercial spaceflight a reality. SpaceX and Rocket Lab have shown private companies developing and operating their own orbital class vehicles is a concept no longer limited to science fiction. Now that private industry has a foot in the door, more companies are coming forward with their own plans for putting their hardware into orbit. In many ways we’re seeing the dawn of a second Space Race.

If all goes according to plan, a new challenger should be entering the ring in the very near future. Scheduled to perform their first test launch before the end of the year, Virgin Orbit (a spin-off of the passenger carrying Virgin Galactic) promises to deliver small payloads to Earth orbit faster and cheaper than their competitors. But while most other commercial space companies are using fairly traditional booster rockets to do their heavy lifting, Virgin Orbit is opting for a the less common air launched approach. Before Virgin joins the ranks of commercial companies exploring the final frontier, lets take a look at their plan for getting into space and the advantages it offers compared to the competition.

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The SmallSat Launcher War

Over the last decade or so the definition of what a ‘small satellite’ is has ballooned beyond the original cubesat design specification to satellites of 50 or 100 kg. Today a ‘smallsat’ is defined far more around the cost, and sometimes the technologies used, than the size and shape of the box that goes into orbit.

There are now more than fifty companies working on launch vehicles dedicated to lifting these small satellites into orbit, and while nobody really expects all of those to survive the next few years, it’s going to be an interesting time in the launcher market. Because I have a sneaking suspicion that Jeff Bezos’ statement that “there’s not that much interesting about cubesats” may well turn out to be the twenty first century’s “nobody needs more than 640kb,” and it’s possible that everybody is wrong about how many of the launcher companies will survive in the long term.

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