2018 Was Busy Year for Suborbital Flight Tests

SpaceShipTwo fires its hybrid engine. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part 2 of 2

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

There were 15 flight tests of eight suborbital boosters in 2018, including six flights of two vehicles — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard — that are designed to carry passengers on space tourism rides.

The race to provide launch services to the booming small satellite industry also resulted in nine flight tests of six more conventional boosters to test technologies for orbital systems. Two of the boosters tested are designed to serve the suborbital market as well.

A pair of Chinese startups took advantage of a loosening of government restrictions on launch providers to fly their rockets two times apiece. There was also suborbital flight tests of American, Japanese and South Korean rockets.

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Suborbital Flights Stopped Being So Humdrum in 2018

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo’s first flight above 50 miles on Dec. 13, 2018. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Part 1 of 2

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Throughout the Space Age, suborbital flight has been the least exciting segment of the launch market. Operating in the shadow of their much larger orbital cousins, sounding rockets carrying scientific instruments, microgravity experiments and technology demonstrations have flown to the fringes of space with little fanfare or media attention.

The suborbital sector has become much more dynamic in recent years now that billionaires have started spending money in it. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic both made significant progress last year in testing New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo, respectively. Their achievements have raised the real possibility of suborbital space tourism flights in 2019. (I know. Promises, promises…. But, this year they might finally really do it. I think.)

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Former NASA Astronaut No Fan of Richard Branson’s “Dangerous” & “Dead-end” SpaceShipTwo Vehicle

SpaceShipTwo breaks up in flight on Oct. 31, 2014. (Crredit: NTSB)

Four-time space shuttle astronaut Andy Thomas is no fan of Sir Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reports.

“It’s really just a high altitude aeroplane flight and a dangerous one at that.”

He said the technology for the spacecraft had little room to grow.

“I think, as a technology to get humans out into space, it’s a go-nowhere, dead-end technology,” he said.

“You can’t grow it, you can’t make it big enough.”

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NASA-Supported Payloads to Get Lift from Blue Origin’s New Shepard

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)
EDWARDS, Calif. (NASA PR) — Suborbital space is the perfect environment for researchers to test experiments, edging them closer to inclusion on future exploration and science missions. NASA’s Flight Opportunities program gives researchers this access, funding flights on Blue Origin and other commercial providers.

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New Shepard to fly 9 NASA-sponsored Payloads to Space on NS-10

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket lifted off July 18 carrying five NASA-supported technologies to flight test in space.

VAN HORN, Texas (Blue Origin PR) — Blue Origin’s next New Shepard mission (NS-10) is currently targeting liftoff tomorrow at 8:30 am CST / 14:30 UTC. This will be the 10th New Shepard mission and is dedicated to bringing nine NASA-sponsored research and technology payloads into space through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.
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Praise from FAA for Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo’s Flight Above 50 Miles

SpaceShipTwo’s two pilots after landing. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Statement of FAA Assistant Administrator Bailey Edwards
on the Successful Virgin Galactic Flight

Let me start by congratulating Virgin Galactic on a successful flight and return from space for the first time since 2004. We applaud your determination and pioneering spirit that delivered today’s milestone flight.

This year, it seems that we continue to reach new milestones within an industry that truly seems to see no earthly bounds. If you’re looking for the next big thing, commercial space is it. Safely growing this aerospace sector is a priority of President Trump, Vice President Pence and Transportation Secretary Chao who represents us with the President’s National Space Council.

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Exclusive Photos of SpaceShipTwo’s Flight

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo take off at 7:11 a.m. PST from the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

My friend Ken Brown got some great photos of the flight today.

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo fly right overhead. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

The spacecraft was dropped 49 minutes after takeoff from Mojave. It fired its engine seconds later.

SpaceShipTwo fires its hybrid engine. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
The engine continued to fire for 60 seconds. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

The 60-second burn was the longest in the history of SpaceShipTwo.

SpaceShipTwo fires its engine. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

We missed the landing because we were too far out into the desert. But, Ken got this photo of WhiteKnightTwo just before touchdown.

WhiteKnightTwo on approach to Mojave. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

SpaceShipTwo Reaches Lower Definition of Space

SpaceShipTwo lands after a successful flight test. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Mojave, California, USA, 13 Dec 2018 (Virgin Galactic PR):  History has been made and a long-anticipated dream realised in Mojave, CA, today as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, landed from her maiden spaceflight to cheers from Richard Branson and the teams from Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company.

Not only is this the first human spaceflight to be launched from American soil since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011, but the very first time that a crewed vehicle built for commercial, passenger service, has reached space.

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Virgin Galactic Statement on Upcoming Flight Test

SpaceShipTwo Unity during third flight test. (Credit: MarsScientific.com & Trumbull Studios)

MOJAVE, Calif. (Virgin Galactic PR) — Our SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, is entering the next stage of testing. During this phase of the flight program we will be expanding the envelope for altitude, air speed, loads, and thermal heating. We also plan to burn the rocket motor for durations which will see our pilots and spaceship reach space for the first time. Although this could happen as soon as Thursday morning, the nature of flight test means that it may take us a little longer to get to that milestone. It has taken years of design and manufacturing work by The Spaceship Company to get to this exciting stage and has required testing of all the parts and subsystems that make up SpaceShipTwo.
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Potentially Historic Flights Loom in Mojave

View of SpaceShipTwo Unity from the tail boom. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

It looks as if things could get very busy here at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the coming weeks with a possible pair of historic milestone flights.

Sir Richard Branson has said he expects SpaceShipTwo Unity to make a flight into space before Christmas, which is just over two weeks away. Sources say a flight is highly likely barring technical or weather delays.

Parabolic Arc has also heard that Stratolaunch could attempt the historic first flight of its massive carrier aircraft before the new year.
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FAI Considers Lowering Boundary of Space

The second SpaceShipTwo is carried aloft by WhiteKnightTwo on its first captive carry flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Well, there’s some great news for Virgin Galactic as it prepares for an attempt to send SpaceShipTwo to space. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which maintains records for aviation and spaceflight, is considering lowering the boundary of space from 100 to 80 km (62.1 to 47.7 miles).

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo probably can’t reach the 100 km boundary, which is also known as the Karman line.

FAI issued the following statement last week:

The Karman line is the 100km altitude used by FAI and many other organisations to mark the “boundary” of space . In the last few years there have been many scientific and technical discussions around this demarcation line for the “edge of space” and variance around this as a boundary condition for recognition of “astronaut” status.

Recently published analyses present a compelling scientific case for reduction in this altitude from 100km to 80km. These analyses combine data/modelling from a number of differing perspectives (latitudinal variations during solar cycles, theoretical lift coefficients for different size/configuration satellites ranging from cubesats to the International Space Station, perigee/apogee elliptical analysis of actual satellite orbital lifetimes etc) to a level that has never been done before in relation to this issue. They also provide an accurate overview of some of the historical arguments and inadvertent misrepresentations of Karman’s actual analyses and conclusions from over half a century ago.

FAI has therefore been in contact with the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) to propose that an international workshop is held during 2019 to fully explore this issue with input and participation from the astrodynamics and astronautical community.

Such a seminar, to be held under joint FAI/IAF auspices, would enable discussion from a wide range of professionals with relevant expertise to analyse and discuss the issue and possible redefinition of the altitude used by international organisations including FAI to recognise human spaceflights.

If the findings lead to a redefinition of the boundary of space as it is in use by international organisations, FAI would review any performances made between today’s statement and the date of implementation of the revised definition in order to ensure that these performances already take into consideration the findings as they exist today.