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Blue Origin launch
A test flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle in April. The company to perform its next suborbital test flight before the end of this year, and could start carrying commercial payloads by mid-2016. (credit: Blue Origin)

Suborbital research makes a comeback

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Several years ago, scientists appeared poised to take advantage of the new generation of commercial suborbital reusable vehicles that seemed about to enter service. The prospects of low-cost, frequent flights of experiments, in some cases with the researcher him or herself along for the ride, attracted interest from people in a wide range of fields, from biology to fluid mechanics to planetary science (see “Suborbital research gets ready for liftoff”, The Space Review, March 1, 2010).

“We’re hoping to fly again before the end of the year,” said Wagner.

In the last couple of years, though, suborbital research has faded into the background. That’s in large part due to the development delays of the suborbital vehicles that, five years ago, were promised to enter service within a year or two. Technological and financial problems, and one high-profile fatal accident, diminished interest among researchers in those vehicles, given they couldn’t be certain when, or even if, they would begin flights.

That perception may be changing. One company is pressing ahead with a vehicle that could, by next summer, be ready to begin commercial suborbital flights of research payloads. Another advocate of suborbital research, meanwhile, argues that commercial suborbital research, poised for a comeback, never went away.

Blue skies for Blue Origin

Blue Origin has long had a reputation for secrecy, but that is clearly changing. In September, they held a major event in Florida to announce their plans to develop an orbital launch vehicle that will be built and launched from Cape Canaveral (see “Blue goes to Florida”, The Space Review, September 21, 2015). In April, they announced their mostly successful test flight of their New Shepard suborbital vehicle less than 24 hours after the flight itself in remote West Texas, an announcement that included a professionally produced video of the test.

That suborbital vehicle will be flying again soon. “We’re hoping to fly again before the end of the year,” said Erika Wagner, business development manager for Blue Origin, during a workshop earlier this month organized by NanoRacks outside Washington, DC. In July, NanoRacks and Blue Origin announced an agreement where NanoRacks would handle sales and integration of research payloads flying on Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle.

Wagner said that April test was largely successful. “If you had been on board that flight, you would have had a great day,” she said. While the vehicle’s crew capsule landed safely under parachutes, its propulsion module, designed to make a powered vertical landing, failed because of a hydraulics problem. “That’s our next challenge,” she said.

A successful upcoming test flight would put Blue Origin on track to begin commercial launches by the middle of next year. “We’re hoping to put our first commercial payloads on somewhere around early next summer,” she said. “We’ll see how the test flight campaign goes.” That schedule for commercial flights, she added, will also depend on when Blue Origin receives its commercial launch license from the FAA.

The April test flight, as well as the upcoming one, operate under an FAA experimental permit, which allows for tests of suborbital vehicles but not flights for hire. However, Blue Origin is working with a number of researchers under a “pathfinder” program to see how New Shepard works as a platform for microgravity and other experiments.

One scientist is impressed with Blue Origin’s capabilities. “Blue’s payload users guide and interface control documents are really well developed,” said Purdue University professor Steven Collicott, who studies fluid dynamics in microgravity. “There’s a wealth of control, power, and data options. It’s really very impressive.”

I think they’re going to be a real gamechanger,” she said of New Shepard’s large windows. “It’s more like flying in the [ISS] cupola than it is like flying in an airliner.”

As part of Blue Origin’s pathfinder program, Collicott will get a free ride of an experiment that fits into a contained about the size of two middeck lockers used on the ISS. “I suppose if I was paying I could have squeezed it into a single-height container,” he said, “but since I wasn’t paying I went ahead and took the extra height and gave myself a little luxury.” That experiment, he said, is now 95-percent ready for flight.

As Blue Origin ramps up commercial research flights—up to once a quarter under current plans—they plan to offer more features for experiments. Wagner mentioned that the capsule will have large windows available for those who want to make observations of the Earth or space. “I think they’re going to be a real gamechanger,” she said. “It’s more like flying in the [ISS] cupola than it is like flying in an airliner.”

Down the road, Wagner said Blue Origin would offer a number of upgrades for research, including quick access to payloads shortly before launch and after landing, as well as hand-on control of experiments once the vehicle starts carrying people, something she later said was still a couple of years away. Blue Origin would even be open to replacing the entire crew capsule with a research payload. “If you have something that weighs 8,000 pounds and needs to get up to 100 kilometers, come talk to me,” she said.

Suborbital research revival

The NanoRacks workshop, which also discussed the company’s payload accommodations on the ISS, took place just before the start of the annual meeting of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research (ASGSR). Much of that meeting focused on research being performed, or planned for, the ISS, but some sessions looked at alternative platforms.

Collicott, who is chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s Suborbital Applications Researchers Group, pitched attendees on the benefits of flying their experiments on suborbital vehicles. Suborbital vehicles, he argued, offer cheaper, faster, and more frequent access to microgravity than flying orbital missions.

The goal, he said, was to make microgravity research more like that in conventional laboratories. “Every morning, every afternoon, my students and I can be in the laboratory, trying something a little different, improving the instrumentation, driving down the noise level in our measurements,” he said. “That’s largely been impossible for low-g experimentation other than the more affordable drop towers,” which provide only a few seconds of microgravity at a time.

“People say to me, ‘Well, the rockets aren’t flying. They’re not ready for me today,’” Collicott said. “My answer is, ‘That’s fine. Is your experiment ready today?’ ‘No, it’s not.’ So, that’s not a problem.”

But what about the central criticism of suborbital vehicles, that they are years behind schedule? Collicott addressed this in two ways. He noted that some commercial suborbital vehicles are, in fact, flying today. Masten Space Systems is flying its vehicles on low-level technology demonstration flights, while UP Aerospace is launching commercial suborbital rockets, including one earlier this month from Spaceport America that included a experiment from his lab to advance its technology readiness level.

“Things are happening. Real flights are happening,” he said. “This is not a future endeavor.”

He acknowledged, though, that some of the big names in suborbital flight, including Blue Origin as well as XCOR Aerospace and Virgin Galactic, are still some time from beginning routine commercial flights, for research or other applications. That, he argued, is actually a good thing for scientists proposing to fly experiments on them.

“People say to me, ‘Well, the rockets aren’t flying. They’re not ready for me today,’” he said. “My answer is, ‘That’s fine. Is your experiment ready today?’ ‘No, it’s not.’ So, that’s not a problem. Write your proposals. Get funded. Build it, test it, and get ready for launch when the rocket companies are ready for you. Now is the time to get started in this area of experimentation.”