A fledgling industry of rocket and balloon companies is taking science and technology experiments into space-like environments.
WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — At the edge of space, in the upper reaches of the stratosphere, extremely cold, near-vacuum conditions can be an ideal proving ground for space-related science and technology experiments.
“Earth’s atmosphere can interfere with the ability to do certain types of research, and at this height, you’re above a large majority of it,” says Andrew Antonio, director of marketing at World View, a Tucson, Arizona–based company that sends research and other high-altitude balloons into the space-like stratosphere, which he says offers an affordable environment for some space-related research.
It’s not just balloons in the stratosphere. Parabolic flights offer researchers microgravity-like conditions without going to space, suborbital flights reach space but don’t orbit Earth, and vertical takeoff, vertical landing platforms can replicate entry, descent, and landing conditions on various planetary bodies. These vehicles, as well as high-altitude balloons, help space researchers reach environments to test their technologies at a fraction of the cost of getting to the International Space Station or a stay onboard a satellite or other spacecraft.
NASA’s Flight Opportunities program aims to spur activity in the commercial spaceflight market by awarding researchers grants or cooperative agreements to test their space and exploration-related technologies on flights such as these. The program also keeps a handful of flight providers on contract to fly Government researchers’ technology payloads. The idea is to support a new industry while advancing NASA’s space research at the same time.
The program also funds projects that will improve the ability of flight providers to test payloads, and it supports the development of small launch vehicle technology—critical for putting small satellites such as CubeSats into orbit.
Matthew Kuhns, chief engineer at Masten Space Systems, says Flight Opportunities has contributed to the company’s fast growth over the years. “It’s helped us build and expand our fleet and push the boundaries of what we can actually do on these flights to meet the customers’ needs.”
Masten specializes in vertical takeoff, vertical landing systems and is focused on developing landers for lunar missions, with the expectation that the company will eventually be a key participant in a cislunar economy.
Establishing a space presence between the Moon and Earth will require many lunar missions, Kuhns says—a business opportunity for Masten.
“If companies use the traditional commercial payload development pipeline, the payloads won’t be ready when the spacecraft are,” he says. “If you use Flight Opportunities and Masten’s capabilities to test payloads on rockets launching from Earth, providing a spacelike environment to test in, you can develop technologies faster, debug them and have higher confidence that they’ll work and actually land on the Moon.”
Masten has its eye on Mars as well, having helped researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, test technology for the Mars 2020 rover’s Lander Vision System—a navigation system to enable unprecedented landing precision.
The company’s Xombie launch platform, contracted through the Flight Opportunities program, was able to simulate Mars-like descent conditions, so NASA researchers could demonstrate the launch vehicle system’s ability to photograph terrain while approaching the surface and match it with onboard maps to avoid known landing hazards, such as boulders.
“It’s just awesome that we could help contribute to landing something on Mars in particular,” says Kuhns. “Showing that it worked here on Earth was a big help getting it approved for Mars 2020.”
Blue Origin took its first Flight Opportunities–funded payload to suborbital space in December 2017 on its New Shepard, a vertical takeoff, vertical landing space vehicle that will eventually carry humans in its crew capsule, in addition to research payloads.
The December flight hosted Blue Origin’s first 12 commercial research payloads, including one from Flight Opportunities–funded researchers at Orbital Medicine and Purdue University who have designed a device to treat collapsed lungs in microgravity. Current treatments for the condition are gravity-dependent.
“The multiple minutes of quality microgravity on New Shepard were critical to achieving the research goals,” says Erika Wagner, Blue Origin’s payload sales director, of the demonstration.
Blue Origin hosted five NASA-supported technologies with New Shepard’s ninth mission—its third to carry commercial research payloads—which flew in July 2018.
For that flight, Flight Opportunities funded a technology demonstration from researchers at Solstar, a company with ambitions to provide commercial Wi-Fi to astronauts and machines in space. In that demonstration, Solstar successfully transmitted the first commercial tweet from suborbital space.
The other Flight Opportunities project aboard New Shepard was a sensor package from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston designed to collect environmental data in the vehicle cabin, including carbon dioxide levels, pressure, acceleration rate and acoustic information—all data that could be beneficial to other researchers and their payloads on future flights.
“NASA’s Flight Opportunities program has done a great job of connecting the research and development community with vehicles that can help them achieve their goals,” says Wagner.
That research and development community is also well served by a thriving and evolving commercial spaceflight sector, notes Steve Ord, Flight Opportunities’ technology manager.
“As new vehicles and capabilities in suborbital flight are developed and brought to the market, researchers from the Government, academia and commercial sectors will all benefit from being able to purchase services that meet their specific needs,” Ord added.
World View’s Antonio says Flight Opportunities certainly helped stimulate the balloon company’s research payload business, having funded some of its earliest contracts.
“It was what allowed us to start routinely flying missions for paying customers,” he says. “It was also critical to the early success of our business that we had support and the stamp of approval from NASA to be able to fly payloads for scientific and research customers.”
A mature market for research flights helps NASA too, as the space agency will continue to contract flights for its own technology demonstration payloads. And suborbital research flights, as well as entry, descent and landing technology research, are likely to spur development of commercial space activity that reaches further into low-Earth orbit, to the moon and beyond.