Space Sunday: tourism, hotels and space stations

VSS Unity’s engine propels it to sub-orbital velocity in the vehicle’s first powered test flight, April 5th, 2018. Credit: / Trumbull Studios / Virgin Galactic

VSS Unity, the second of Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital spaceplanes, Has completed its first powered test flight, bringing the company one step closer to it goal of flying tourist into space.

The flight took place on Thursday, April 5th, with the vehicle, crewed by David Mackay  and Mark Stucky, carried from its operational base at Mojave Air and Space Port in California, to an altitude of about 14,200 metres (46,150 ft) before being released. Dropping clear of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier, the single rocket motor, burning a solid propellant mix, was ignited in what the company calls a “partial duration burn” of 30 seconds. Shorter than an engine burn expected during passenger-carrying flights, it was nevertheless sufficient to push VSS Unity to a maximum altitude of 25,686 metres (83,479 ft) and a maximum velocity of mach 1,87.

Partial though it may have been, the engine burn on the flight nevertheless represented the longest time a SpaceShipTwo rocket motor has been fired in the entire development of the vehicle. It pushed VSS Unity to achieve the highest and fastest speed thus far in a powered test flight – the fifth such flight for a SpaceShipTwo vehicle.

VSS Unity touches down at Mojave Air and Space Port, some 10 minutes after being release from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft at the start of its first powered test flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Three prior flights had been completed by VSS Unity’s predecessor, the VSS Enterprise.  Unfortunately, during its fourth flight, the Enterprise broke apart seconds into its powered ascent on October 31st, 2014, after co-pilot Michael Alsbury accidentally deployed the vehicle’s “feathering” system. Designed to assist the vehicle during its re-entry into the denser part of Earth’s atmosphere, the feathering system tips up the vehicle’s wing booms, but deployed when under power, the feathering place unsustainable stresses on the vehicle, causing it to break-up, killed Alsbury and seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold.

As a result of that crash, the Unity incorporates additional safety features designed to prevent any repeat on the Enterprise accident.

The April 5th  test flight is the first in a series of powered flights intended to expand the vehicle’s performance envelope and to prepare for commercial flights carrying tourists and research payloads. Exactly how many of these flights will take place  has not been made clear, simply because the company wants to keep things open-ended and be sure they have the highest confidence in the vehicle before commencing commercial flights.

In addition to the test flight, Virgin used April 5th to announce a non-binding agreement in October with the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia whereby the PIF would invest $1 billion into Virgin’s space companies, which also includes Virgin Orbit, the small launch vehicle developer.

During to enter the air-launch business later in 2018, Virgin Orbit will use a converted 747 airliner to carry its LauncherOne rocket to altitude before releasing it so it can carry payloads of up to 500 kg to orbit.  These payloads can either be individual satellites or multiple micro-satellites.

The LauncherOne vehicle and its carrier aircraft. Credit: Virgin Orbit

On April 4th, Virgin Orbit announced plans to offer customers a variety of services including responsive launch / maintenance of large satellite constellations and debris removal activities.

“Satellite constellations” refers to large numbers of satellites being placed in low-Earth orbit to perform a specific task, and which tend to be launched en masse using a single large launch vehicle. The Iridium constellation, for example, comprising over 40 satellites, was placed in orbit by SpaceX launching 10 satellites at a time. However, as the individual satellites reach there end of life – or suffer unexpected failures – they will need replacement units, which in turn require more economical launch systems than big boosters. This is the service Virgin Orbit plans to offer under the “responsive launch / maintenance contract: a means for customers to prepare replacement units and then launch them rapidly and at lower cost than possible through other means.

“Commercial customers say the idea of getting into orbit within days is very appealing for them,” Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit president and chief executive, said. “For the national security world, that has always been a goal. For once, the commercial and government worlds are perfectly well aligned.”

The debris removal aspect of the work is longer term, and would likely see Virgin Orbit collaborating with companies specialising in orbital debris removal. “With thousands of [low-Earth orbit] satellites planned, that is going to happen,” Hart stated. “I’ve recently become a believer that space debris is a problem that needs to be solved and I’m happy to see there are companies rising up to take that on.”

The first LauncherOne carrier aircraft, Cosmic Girl, undergoing tests at Long Beach Airport, California. Credit: Michael Carter

Initially, Virgin Orbit will fly from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, but the company is planning to also operate out of NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre, utilising the massive space shuttle runway available there. Longer-term, as air-launched systems become more accepted globally, the company also hopes to offer launch services from any airport capable of handling a 747, and prepared to allow rocket handling and fuelling.

A Room With A View? Start-up Claims to be Planning First “Space Hotel”

Also on April 5th, a start-up company called Orion Span announced plans to start operating the world’s first orbital space hotel (and research facility)  – in 2021 or 2022. Something which at best sounds ambitious.

The company, founded by Silicon valley serial entrepreneur Frank Bunger, plans to offer a “full astronaut experience” aboard a single-module orbital facility called Aurora Station, which they plan to expand into a full orbital facility supporting commercial use.

The initial single module Aurora Station “space hotel” Orion Span claim they plan to have operating in Earth orbit by 2022. Not the Blue Origin New Shephard vehicle approaching it. Credit: Orion Span.

It’s a pretty bold statement for a start-up to make, particularly as Orion Span claims just six employees at present. Developing, testing and launching a crew-capable orbital facility generally takes many years to achieve. Not only is there the actual design and fabrication, there’s all of the required testing and certification, etc; so aiming to do so in just 3 or 4 years is a little heady. Further, Bunger claims the company can develop the initial module for “tens of millions” of dollars – that’s considerably less than the cost of many satellites – through the use of “proprietary technology” and business arrangements, including bartering for some services. However, he has thus far declined to answer questions on any of this.

The company also indicates they plan to offer 12-day trips to its station for US $9.5 million – or around US $792,000 per night. This will include a comprehensive training programme will “streamline” the 2-year astronaut basic training regimen, “to three months, at a fraction of the cost.”

A cutaway view of the Aurora Station … which actually reveals very little of actual on-board facilities. Credit: Orion Span

How prospective visitors will reach the station is also vague. Mention is made of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and the SpaceX Dragon 2 vehicle. Both of these craft are due to start flying crews to the International Space Station from 2019, and it’s fair to say both SpaceX and Boeing could be looking for other opportunities to see these vehicles used. However, the press images released by the company appear to show the Blue Origin New Shepard vehicle. This seem to be something of a non-sequitur: New Shephard is designed for sub-orbital crewed flights.

The language around the experience aboard the station even works a Star Trek reference into things, stating visitors will “enjoy the exhilaration of zero gravity … gaze at the northern and southern aurora through the many windows, soar over their home towns, take part in research experiments such as growing food while in orbit (which they can take home with them as the ultimate souvenir), revel in a virtual reality experience on the holodeck…” On the holodeck? Really?

An expanded Aurora Station. Again, note the New Shephard in the foreground. Credit: Orion Span.

Orion Span also indicate the station could be used for commercial activities as well, such as micro gravity manufacturing and research. Both of these could be of potential interest, were the station – and pardon the pun – to get off the ground; although I’m not so sure about “space condos”, whether for work or living,  could realistically be offered “for purchase”.

Funding for the company is unclear – Bunger will only state they had just closed a round of seed funding (which generally raises just a small fraction of the money required for an enterprise), and are now looking for the “right firm” to partner with. In the meantime, tickets are being offered for a deposit of US $80,000 each, with the statement that the money will be held in escrow and be fully refundable.

NASA May Extend Boeing CST-100 Crew Test Flight to Support ISS Operations

NASA is considering extending Boeing’s planned orbital test flights of the CST-100 Starliner vehicle  so that the currently planned second text flight will effectively become an operational flight.

Part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract, the CST-100 is one of two capsule-style vehicles selected by NASA to fly crews between US soil and the International Space Station (ISS). Under plans submitted by Boeing, it would have made two short-duration test flights to the ISS, the first being an uncrewed, automated flight, and the second flying two crew to the station for around a week. However, in a response to a suggestion put out by NASA, Boeing has tabled a proposal to make this second flight could incorporate a crew of three, and be extended to six months duration, effectively making it a de facto crew rotation mission.

The CST-100 Starliner: its first crewed test flight to the ISS could effectively become an “operational” flight test. Credit: Boeing

The suggestion was made in February 2018 as a result of concerns that any delays in officially certifying either the CST-100 or the SpaceX Dragon 2(the other CCtCAP contract holder) for operational use might leave NASA dependent on the Russian Soyuz craft for accessing the ISS for longer than desirable. By extending one or more test flights to a more operational mode of flight, NASA hopes to have “stop-gap” capability for lifting crews to the ISS should full certification be delayed.

SpaceX hasn’t as yet submitted a similar proposal to extend one of their test flights, but NASA has indicated that were they to do so, the proposal would be similarly considered. Currently, both companies are aiming at August 2018 for their uncrewed test flights to the ISS, with Boeing hoping to launch their crewed test flight in November, and SpaceX in December 2018.

Tiangong-1’s Return

China’s Tiangong-1 (“Celestial Palace 1”) re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and broke-up on Monday, April 2nd at 01:15 UTC See my previous Space Sunday report for more).

The re-entry and burn-up was first reported by  US Department of Defense Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC), and then confirmed by the European Space Agency. It occurred over the Pacific Ocean, with any debris surviving re-entry splashing down in a region referred to as the South Pacific Ocean Unpopulated Area (SPOUA), long used by space agencies to dispose of spent spacecraft after a controlled re-entry.

“The JFSCC used the Space Surveillance Network sensors and their orbital analysis system to confirm Tiangong-1’s re-entry, and to refine its prediction and ultimately provide more fidelity as the re-entry time approached. This information is publicly available on USSTRATCOM’s website The JFSCC also confirmed re-entry through coordination with counterparts in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.”

JFSCC announcement of the Tiangong-1 re-entry, released on April 1st, 2018 (US time).

A composite of two radar images of Tinagong-1, captured on March 27th, 2018 by the Tracking and Imaging Radar system operated by Germany’s Fraunhofer FHR research institute at Wachtberg, Germany. At the time of their acquisition, the laboratory was orbiting 270 kilometres above the surface of the Earth. Credit: Fraunhofer FHR

Reporting on the re-entry, China’s Manned Space Agency (CMSA) also made a public statement on the re-entry, noting that “Tiangong-1 re-entered the atmosphere at about 8:15 am, 2 April, Beijing time. The re-entry falling area located in the central region of South Pacific. Most of the devices were ablated during the re-entry process.”


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