Space Sunday: the Moonwalker and the artist

Astronaut and painter, Alan Bean in his Studio in Texas. Credit: unknown

The pool of men who flew to the Moon, and those who walked on its surface, as a part of NASA’s Apollo programme is sadly shrinking. And on Saturday May 26th, 2018, it became even smaller with the news that Alan Bean, the fourth man to set foot on the Moon had passed away.

His passing was unexpected. Although 86 years of age, he was in good health and was travelling with his family when he suddenly fell ill while in Indiana two weeks ago. He was taken to the Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, to receive treatment, but passed away whilst at the hospital.

Born on March 15th, 1932 in Wheeler County, Texas, Alan LaVern Bean received a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Texas, Austin in 1955. While at the UT Austin, he accepted a commission as a U.S. Navy Ensign  in the university’s Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps and attended flight training.

Alan Bean in 1969 in a NASA publicity photograph ahead of the Apollo 12 mission. Credit: NASA

Qualifying as a pilot in 1956, he served four years  based in Florida flying attack aircraft. He was then posted to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS) at Patuxent River, Maryland, where his instructor was the irrepressible Charles “Pete” Conrad. The two stuck up an enduring friendship which was to eventually take them to the Moon.

As a naval test pilot, Bean flew numerous aircraft prior to transferring back to fighter operations in 1962, again serving in Florida for a year. In 1963, he was accepted into NASA as a part of the Group 3 astronaut intake.

He had originally applied as a part of the Group 2 intake in 1962 alongside Conrad, but failed to make the cut. Coincidentally, Conrad’s Group 2 application  – which was successful – was also his second attempt to join NASA. He’d actually been part of the Group 1 intake, but  – always rebellious – he walked away for being subject to what he felt were demeaning and unnecessary medical and psychological tests.

Bean’s flight career at NASA was initially choppy: he was selected as a back-up astronaut with the Gemini programme but did not secure a flight seat. He then initially failed to gain an Apollo primary or back-up flight assignment. Instead he was assigned to the Apollo Applications Programme testing systems and facilities to be used in both lunar missions and training for flights to the Moon. In this capacity he was the first astronaut to use the original Weightless Environment Training Facility (WETF). This is a gigantic pool in which astronauts may perform tasks wearing suits designed to provide neutral buoyancy, simulating the microgravity they will experience during space flight. He became a champion for the use of the facility in astronaut training, which was used through until the 1980s, when is was superseded by the larger Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) used in space station training.

On October 5th, 1967, Apollo 9 back-up Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) pilot Clifton Williams was tragically killed in an air accident. As a result, “Pete” Conrad, the back-up crew commander specifically requested Bean be promoted to the position of his LEM pilot. This placed the two of them, together with Command Module (CM) pilot Richard F. Gordon Jr on course to fly as the prime crew for Apollo 12, the second mission intended to land on the Moon.

Bean and Conrad approached their lunar mission with huge enthusiasm and commitment. In contrast to some of their comrades, who at times found the intense geological training the Apollo astronauts went through a little tiresome, they became extremely engaged in the training – which resulted in them gathering what Harrison Schmitt – the only true geologist to walk on the Moon thus far – later called, “a fantastic suite of lunar samples, a scientific gift that keeps on giving today.”

The Apollo 12 crew (l to r): Charles “Pete” Conrad, Commander; Richard F. Gordon Jr , Command Module pilot; and Alan Bean, Lunar Excursion Module pilot. Credit: NASA

In particular, Bean and Conrad became deeply involved in one of the primary aspects of their mission – a visit to the Surveyor 3 space craft.

The Surveyor programme was a series of seven robotic landers NASA sent to the Moon between June 1966 and January 1968, primarily to demonstrate the feasibility of soft landings on the Moon in advance of Apollo. Scientists were particularly keen that Conrad and Bean land close enough the probe so they could collect elements from it for analysis on Earth to see what exposure to the radiative environment around the Moon had treated them.

However, Bean had his own plans for the trip to the Surveyor vehicle: with Conrad, he conspired to smuggle self-timer for his Hasselblad camera in their equipment. The pair planned to secretly set-up the camera and use the timer to capture a photograph the pair of them standing side-by-side on the Moon – and confuse the mission control team as to how they had managed the feat! Unfortunately, Bean couldn’t locate the timer in their equipment tote bag until it was too late for the picture to be taken. Instead, he later immortalised the scene in his painting The Fabulous Photo We Never Took.

“The Fabulous Photo We Never Took” by Alan Bean. Courtesy of alanbean.com

Apollo 12 launched on schedule from Kennedy Space Centre on November 14th, 1969, during a rainstorm. Thirty-six-and-a-half seconds after lift-off, the vehicle triggered a lightning discharge through itself and down to the Earth through the Saturn’s ionized plume. Protective circuits on the Service Module falsely detected electrical overloads and took all three fuel cells off-line, along with much of the Command/Service Module (CSM) instrumentation.

A second strike then occurred 15.5 seconds later, resulting in further power supply problems, illuminating nearly every warning light on the control panel as it caused a massive instrumentation malfunction. In particular, the “8-ball” attitude indicator was knocked out and the telemetry feed to Mission Control became garbled. However, the vehicle continued to fly correctly, the lightning not having disrupted the Saturn V’s own instrumentation unit.

Left: Apollo 12 is struck by lightning, the discharge passing down the vehicle into its exhaust plume. Right: the launch complex tower is also struck by lightning after the departure of the Saturn V rocket. Credit; NASA

Continue reading “Space Sunday: the Moonwalker and the artist”

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Space Sunday: Flying on Mars, working on the Moon and visiting Europa

The Mars helicopter demonstrator: set to fly with the Mars 2020 rover mission. Credit: NASA

In November 2015 I wrote about an idea to fly a robotic drone helicopter on Mars as a part of the next rover mission, currently referred to as the Mars 2020 mission. On May 11th, 2018, NASA confirmed that Mars 2020 will now include the drone, to be carried by the rover as a technology demonstrator.

The unit, under development since 2013, is quite small; the body is the size of a box of tissues, and the contra-rotating rotor blades have a diameter of a metre (39 inches). Weighing some 1.8 kg (4.4 lbs), the drone will be battery-powered, using solar cells to recharge the batteries, which will also power a dedicated heating source to help it survive the cold Martian nights.

The drone will be carried underneath the rover, which will used the same “skycrane” landing mechanism as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity. Once a suitable location for its deployment is found, the rover will lower it to the ground and move away to let the drone commence its first flight.

An artist’s impression of the key elements in the Mars Helicopter. Credit: NASA

Up to five flights are planned over a 30-day test campaign. The first will be very short-duration, enough to allow the helicopter to ascend to around 3 metres (9 feet) and hover for 30 seconds while the flight systems are checked out. Later flights will last up to 90 seconds and travel as far as a few hundred metres before landing to allow the solar panels to recharge the battery system.

Flying any sort of aircraft on Mars is a significant challenge. For example, the atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, or the equivalent of being 30 km (100,000 feet) above the surface of the Earth – more the double the altitude any helicopter has been able to fly. This means the drone has to be both very lightweight and extremely powerful for its size if it is to get airborne on Mars.

To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be.

– Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager

To achieve lift, The helicopter’s blades will rotate at up to 3,000 revolutions per minute, 10 times the rate of a terrestrial helicopter. The vehicle is also entirely autonomous – the time delay in Earth-Mars-Earth communications means that conventional drone flight under human control is impossible.

Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager. Credit: NASA

Instead, flight parameters will be uploaded to the Mars 2020 rover for relay to the helicopter, which will also be able to receive and act on additional instructions sent by the rover so that it doesn’t have to carry the entire flight plan within its own computer.

NASA sees Mars Helicopter as demonstrating how aerial vehicles might serve as scouts for future missions to Mars. This idea is explored in the most recent video promoting the mission, with a helicopter scanning and image the terrain around a rover.

The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers. With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.

– Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science

As a technology demonstrator,the Mars Helicopter is seen as a high-rick project, although NASA has been keen to stress that if the helicopter fails for any reason, it will not impact the overall Mars 2020 mission. Nevertheless, the news the project will be carried on the rover mission hasn’t been positively received in all quarters – including within the Mars 2020 mission itself.

I am not an advocate for the helicopter, and I don’t believe the Mars 2020 project has been an advocate for the helicopter.

– Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020

The concern among the rover science team is that the helicopter’s planned 90-day test campaign will prove to be a disruption in the rover’s overall science mission. However, Farley also indicated that the rover team are working to integrate the helicopter into the rover’s mission and accommodate its requirements.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Flying on Mars, working on the Moon and visiting Europa”

Linden Lab highlights GDPR – coming into force on May 25th 2018

On May 25th, 2018 the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force. While an EU regulation, the GDPR not only applies to organisations located within the EU but it will also apply to organisations located outside of the EU if they offer goods or services to, or monitor the behaviour of, EU data subjects.

The GDPR applies to all companies processing and holding the personal data of data subjects residing in the European Union, regardless of the company’s location. As such, it not  only Linden Lab, who hold data on Second Life and Sansar users in the European Union, it can also impact those operating a business through Second Life and who collect data on customers which is stored outside of the servers operated by Linden Lab.

In preparation for the enforcement of the GDPR, on May 9th, 2018, Linden Lab issued a preliminary blog post on their compliance with the GDPR, which covers both Second Life or Sansar.

GDPR, in a nutshell.

Put simply, the GDPR puts in place new requirements for the collection, maintenance, and use of personal data for residents of the European Union (EU) and European Economic Area (EEA). It’s an important evolution in privacy practices, and one we’ve already started to account for: if you notice, our existing Privacy Policy already discloses the type of personal data we collect from you, how we use and limit any sharing of your data, and your rights to control our use of your personal data.

What you can expect.

In coming weeks, we’ll provide more information on how EU residents in Second Life can best exercise their rights under GDPR. In some cases, you may take actions through your account dashboard (to modify your personal data, for instance). In others, it may be necessary to file a support ticket and verify your identity (to better protect your privacy).

– Linden Lab May 9th blog post on the upcoming GDPR

The GDPR defines personal data as, “any information related to a natural person or ‘Data Subject’, that can be used to directly or indirectly identify the person.” This includes, but is not limited to: IP addresses, on-line identifiers (including avatar names), e-mail addresses, photographs, as well as the more usual name, address, bank details, medical data, etc.

In addition to defining requirements for how such data should be managed and protected by organisations gathering it, the GDPR also specifies a number of rights to Data Subjects who have their personal information stored by companies and other entities. These include, but are not limited to:

  • The right to be informed: Data Subjects have the right to know what data is being collected, how it’s being used, how long it will be kept and whether it will be shared with any third parties.
  • The right to access: generally speaking, organisations are required, within one month of receipt of a formal request, to provide a copy of any personal data concerning the requesting Data Subject.
  • The right to rectification: a Data Subject can formally request that inaccurate or incomplete information relating to them is updated, and the update must be made within one month (exceptions can apply).
  • The right to be forgotten: a Data Subject can request the erasure of all personal data relating to them in certain circumstances (e.g. it is no longer necessary to hold it; if the data was unlawfully processed or it no longer meets the lawful ground for which it was collected). However, there are certain exceptions to this.

(In addition, the GDPR defines: The right to object (to data being gathered); The right to restrict processing; The right to data portability; and Rights related to automated decision making including profiling.)

For those running businesses through Second Life or Sansar which use services  – web sites, computers, etc.,  – outside of Second Life for the collection and storage of personal information on their EU Second Life  / Sansar customers, the GDPR might have significant import – and exposure to the risk of fines. For such businesses, the Lab’s advice is clear and straightforward:

If you collect or process personal data of EU residents on a website associated with Second Life or Sansar, or create or make use of programs that retain information about Second Life or Sansar users or their computers, you may also have obligations under the GDPR. You should consult with your legal counsel for advice regarding your site(s) or program(s).

– Linden Lab May 9th blog post on the upcoming GDPR

To help people get to grips with GDPR, if they haven’t been aware of its arrival, the Lab offer a series of links to articles and FAQs. To these I would add:

The following is a brief video outlining the GDPR in under a minute.

Space Sunday: insight on InSight

via Associated Press

On Saturday, May 5th, 2018, NASA commenced the latest in its ongoing robot exploration missions to Mars, with the launch of the InSight lander mission.

The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission is the first designed to carry out a detailed examination of the Red Planet’s interior – its crust, mantle and core.

Studying Mars’ interior structure can answer key questions about the early formation of the rocky planets in our inner solar system – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars – more than 4 billion years ago. In addition, the data gathered may also help us to understand how rocky exoplanets orbiting other stars in our galaxy may have formed.

As well as potentially being a ground-breaking mission, InSight’s departure from Earth marked the first time any US interplanetary mission had been launched from the West Coast, rather than the more familiar Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. InSight started its six-month journey to Mars atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 launch vehicle from Space Launch Complex 3-East at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, lifting-off at 04:05 PDT (07:05 EDT; 11:05 UTC) on May 5th, marking the end of a 2-year delay for the mission.

That delay had been caused by the repeated failure of a vacuum sphere forming a part of a set of seismometers called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) package, a crucial part of the mission’s science. Attempts to correct the issue with the French-developed package consistently led to further problems until, in December 2015, NASA was forced to call off InSight’s planned March 2016 launch while the unit was France for further repairs – a move that gave rise to fears the entire mission would be cancelled if a solution could not be found in time for InSight to meet the next launch opportunity in 2018 – such launch windows occurring every 26 months.

The mission critical vacuum sphere originally designed by CNES, and which kept failing tests and caused a 2-year delay in InSight’s launch. Credit: CNES

The mission was saved in March 2016 – a week after its original launch date in fact – when NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) reached an agreement with the French space agency CNES. This allowed JPL to design, build and test a new vacuum enclosure, with CNES taking responsibility for integrating it with the SEIS package, and testing the completed unit in readiness for integration with the lander in time for a May 2018 launch.

On May 5th 2018, the launch itself proceeded smoothly, with the Atlas V booster quickly obscured by pre-dawn fog shortly after clearing the launch complex. however, it was caught at altitude by a NAA observation aircraft, as it rose above the cloud tops. As well as InSight, the rocket carried within its payload fairings two “cubesats”, each roughly the size of a briefcase, called MarCO A and MarCO B.

Together, these tiny, self-contained satellites for the Mars Cube One (MarCO) technology demonstrator. Sent on their way to Mars alongside InSight, they both operate independently of the lander, carrying their own communications and navigation experiments. Their mission is designed to provide NASA with a temporary communications relay system during InSight’s  entry, descent and landing (EDL) mission phase, as it heads towards a (hopefully) soft-landing on Mars.

Currently, surface missions to Mars are generally monitored by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which monitors transmissions from a vehicle descending towards a landing on Mars. However, it cannot simultaneously transmit that information to Earth. This means that it can be as much as an hour before the data gathered during the critical EDL phase of a surface mission can be received on Earth. MarCO will be able to simultaneously receive and transmit EDL data sent by InSight to Earth, allowing mission engineers and scientists to have a more complete picture of this critical phase of the mission that much sooner. If successful, MarCO cover pave the way to a greater use of cubesats in the exploration of Mars.

An artist’s impression of MarCO A and MarCO B with their communications antennae deployed post-launch and on their way to Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

Continue reading “Space Sunday: insight on InSight”

Space Sunday: spaceplanes and landers

Artist’s impression of the Experimental Spaceplane XS-1, a joint venture between DARPA and Boeing and dubbed the “Phantom Express” by the latter. Credit: Boeing

Spaceplanes  – vehicles capable of operating like an aircraft with in the Earth’s atmosphere, and as a space vehicle either in orbit or while above altitudes of around 80-90 kilometres – are still relatively rare beasts, despite once being seen as the future of low-cost access to space. There have only really been a handful put to what might be called “operational” use. Most notably these include the space shuttle – more formally called the Space Transportation System, and the secretive X-37B “mini shuttle” operated by Boeing and the US Air Force.

Things will be changing in the future, most notably when the sub-orbital SpacePlaneTwo vehicle(s) operated by Virgin Galactic start “tourist” flights to the edge of space, and when the DreamChaser Cargo vehicle starts flying cargo payloads to the International Space Station in the 2020 – of which more below. A further vehicle set to enter operations in 2020/21 is the Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1), which is quite a fascinating concept I’ve briefly covered in these pages.

A joint venture between the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Boeing, the latter having been awarded the phase 2 development contract by DARPA in late 2017, the uncrewed vehicle sit between the comparatively small X-37B and a space shuttle orbiter in size, being roughly comparable with and executive business jet. Dubbed the “Phantom Express” by Boeing, its primary goal is to offer a rapid launch and turn-around capability in deploying replacement, or urgently required, payloads to orbit. So rapid, in fact that as part of its test launch programme, a single XS-1 demonstrator must complete 10 launches in 10 days. In addition, the vehicle must be capable of hypersonic flight to around Mach 10 (12,250 km/h), and operate with a launch cost of around US $5 million per flight.

A sub-orbital vehicle, the XS-1 will not have an internal cargo bay; instead, the payload(s) will be mounted on one or two expendable boosters carried on its back, forming the system’s upper stage. This design allows the XS-1 to be a completely self-contained launcher: there is no booster system to help it into the skies, and no external tank for fuel.

To complete the XS-1, Boeing has partnered with Aerojet Rocketdyne, who will provide the vehicle’s primary motor – the AR-22. This is effectively an updated variant of the RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME), and has been selected because of the AR-25’s track record of space shuttle flights.

An artist’s impression of the XS-1 being readied for launch, a single payload upper stage mounted on its back. Credit: Boeing / DARPA

The XS-1 will fly out of Kennedy Space Centre, where Boeing already operate the X-37B and have vehicle processing facilities. It will launch vertically from a dedicated mobile launch platform, rather than a fixed pad. After climbing to altitude and clearing the denser part of the atmosphere, the spaceplane will release the payload booster, which delivers the payload to orbit, while the spaceplane makes an automated return to Florida, and make a landing either at the former space shuttle runway at Kennedy Space Centre or the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Phase 2 of the programme runs through until the end of 2019, and encompasses the design, construction and testing of a technology demonstration vehicle and the construction of the first AR-22 motors. One of these will be test-fired on the ground 10 times in 10 days to verify it is ready for flight tests. It comes at a cost of US $146 million to DARPA, with Boeing covering the remaining costs. The follow-on third phase of the project is due to commence in late 2019, and will include both 12 to 15 flight tests intended to confirm the atmospheric handling of the XS-1 spaceplane, and the 10 test launches in a 10-day time frame.

While developed as a DARPA programme, the XS-1 is not seen as being purely for government launches. Following the flight tests, DARPA and Boeing plan to release “selected data” from the test programme to commercial enterprises interested in leveraging the system’s low-cost, rapid launch capabilities.

Dream Chaser Cargo: SNC Weigh Launcher Options

Another spaceplane I’ve referenced in these updates is Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC’s) Dream Chaser Cargo. Developed from an earlier variant of the vehicle SNC hoped would be used to ferry crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS), Dream Chaser Cargo is due to start delivering supplies to the ISS in 2020, alongside the current flights by the SpaceX Dragon and Orbital ATK Cygnus vehicles. During the 34th Space Symposium held in April 2018, SNC provided an update on their plans for Dream Chaser in general.

The vehicle has now entered its critical design review (CDR) with NASA, which is due to conclude in July 2018. This will clear the way for the construction of the first flight-ready version of Dream Chaser Cargo, which is due to fly in late 2020.

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser test article has officially be placed in “semi-retirement” until the company is ready to resume work on a crewed variant of the vehicle. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

In addition the company announced the flight test article, originally built for the crewed version of the Dream Chaser, is being retired and mothballed until such time as SNC is ready to resume it explorations in developing a crewed version of the vehicle, something which may be contingent on commercial interest and partners.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: spaceplanes and landers”

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: MarsScientifc.com / 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.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: tourism, hotels and space stations”