Experts are predicting a new age of space research as US-based space companies inch closer to offering frequent suborbital flights for commercial, research and academic uses.
Amidst a brewing battle between private space firms in the US, Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin and Richard Branson-backed Virgin Galactic are both making strides in their respective — and yet unrealized — suborbital vehicle launch businesses.
Earlier this month, Blue Origin concluded a successful suborbital test flight with its first customer payload. The test, known as “Mission 7,” marks a milestone for the company as its first revenue-generating launch for its New Shepard suborbital vehicle.
The flight test carried 12 public, academic, and private experiment payloads, including two weightlessness experiments, a NASA-funded surgical experiment, and a dummy named Mannequin Skywalker. Blue Origin will continue to fly commercial payloads throughout testing in 2018.
With the help of Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and World View Enterprises, 2018 could prove to be the big break out year in commercial suborbital flight. Doing so will open up new methods for researchers, private firms and national space agencies to develop and conduct extensive research in fields such as microgravity, Earth observation and atmospheric physics.
That prospect has scientists like Dr Alan Stern, associate vice president at the Southwest Research Institute, optimistic about the future of suborbital and microgravity research.
The suborbital vehicle race is “transforming rare access to space to routine access to space,” Stern told The Downlink. Stern is principal investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, and is co-founder and chief scientist at the stratospheric balloon launch company, World View Enterprises.
Suborbital flights will revolutionize research
The promise of frequent, low cost suborbital launches has the potential to dramatically bolster research fields that need access to these specific environs. “The flight rates are going to be so much higher, that we can do so much more than ever before. And in addition, because the flights are so less expensive, we can afford to do more. Those two things together make it enabling,” Stern said.
Most suborbital flight and microgravity research is currently conducted on airplanes flying in parabolic flight patterns to simulate microgravity for a few seconds at a time. Suborbital rockets, on the other hand, could give scientists much improved conditions for research. Blue Origin’s latest test flight, for example, offered researchers three minutes of actual microgravity by flying to the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere.
“The microgravity that Blue Origin’s vehicle produces lasts 10 times longer and is three orders of magnitude cleaner than what airplanes can produce, at much lower disturbance levels,” Stern said. “For not much more than it costs to fly on an airplane, now you can have ten times longer, and 1,000 times better microgravity. It’s a huge step forward.”
Suborbital vehicles flying “human-tended payloads” will also enable more scientists to conduct more of their own experiments. At present, actual experiments conducted in space environs must rely on automation or, in the case of the ISS, third-party supervision.
“We have the opportunity with suborbital, for the first time, for researchers to fly with their experiments, which is hugely transformative,” Stern said. “It will catalyze whole new kinds of research in space that we could never do before.”
Commercial opportunities for rockets and balloons alike
Beyond research, there are commercial applications for suborbital rockets and balloons. “Suborbital gives you rapid access, at relatively low cost, to viewing very wide areas of the Earth, that normally you’d have to launch a satellite [to reach], at much greater expense,” Stern said.
Despite the media hype around the likes of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, World View Enterprises is already making in-roads among researchers and commercial entities for its “near space” flights. World View’s balloons offer a number of advantages over rockets for some suborbital access use cases, particularly around Earth observation.
“They are really different tools for different purposes,” Stern said. “There are many things you can do with balloons that you can’t do with rockets and visa versa.”
Balloons are able to hover over a specific area — say, a border, a wildfire, or a battlefield — for days or even weeks. And balloons can carry much heavier payloads to the upper reaches of the atmosphere. But suborbital rockets are able to reach much higher altitudes than balloons, and rockets can deliver experiments to microgravity.
“Commercial applications are popping up all over the place that are the just the leading edge,” Stern said. “I see the rockets and the balloons as complementary capabilities. I think they’re both going to be successful.”
Democratized space will open up global markets
At the recent Next Generation Suborbital Research Conference, Italy’s Agenzie Spaziale Italiana (ASI) announced it had signed a public-private “letter of intent” with Virgin Galactic for a suborbital flight aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. ASI has flown multiple science experiments to the ISS, and is busy establishing a spaceport in Italy to support further suborbital spaceflight operations for research. But in the meantime, ASI is eager to leverage private space firms like Virgin Galactic in its research endeavors.
Such contracts are early examples of “a government space agency contracting with a commercial space company to conduct human-tended suborbital research payloads,” Virgin Galactic said. “This work can open up new avenues for both government and commercial astronaut training.”
While these types of contracts can offer limited short term revenue opportunities for commercial spaceflight players, Stern believes that frequent suborbital flights will open up new global markets for space research.
“Every country on Earth wants to have a 21st century economy. They want engineers in their pipeline, and they want scientists and science teachers in their pipeline,” he said. “When little countries like Aruba can afford spaceflight, then the market grows to all 193 nations on Earth.”