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Virgin Galactic signs deal for spaceflights in Italy

SpaceShiipTwo
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, known as VSS Unity, is hooked onto its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane at Mojave Air and Space Port in California. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic and a pair of Italian companies today signed a framework agreement aimed at bringing Virgin Galactic’s launch system to a future spaceport in the heel of Italy’s “boot.”

The suborbital space launch system would be based at Taranto-Grottaglie Airport, which Italian public-private partners aim to turn into a spaceport.

Although the companies didn’t announce a time frame for the start of operations, one of the executives involved said in May that the spaceport “could be active as early as 2020.”

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Why SpaceX and Boeing can sell extra seats to orbit

Sunita Williams in SpaceX Dragon mockup
NASA astronaut Sunita Williams wears a SpaceX spacesuit as she sits in a mockup for a Crew Dragon spaceship. (SpaceX Photo)

RENTON, Wash. — When NASA’s Phil McAlister worked out the contracts with SpaceX and Boeing to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, he made sure they could make some money on the side.

The contracts contain a clause that allows the companies to propose putting a private spaceflight participant in one of the extra seats aboard SpaceX’s Dragon craft or Boeing’s Starliner spaceship, said McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA Headquarters.

“Contractually, we put a hook in there,” McAlister said today at the Space Frontier Foundation’s annual NewSpace conference in Renton. “I made sure it was there. It was very important for that capability to be in the contract.”

The clause kicks in once SpaceX and Boeing get their space taxis certified for flight, which could happen as early as next year.

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Axiom offers space station vacations for $55M

Axiom view in Cupola
An artist’s conception shows a space traveler floating in zero gravity. (Axiom Space Illustration)

How much would you pay for a 10-day stay in low Earth orbit? Houston-based Axiom Space has set a $55 million price point for trips that it says could begin as early as 2020.

If you want to fly that soon, Axiom Space is offering accommodations on the International Space Station. But the company, headed by a former NASA space station program manager, says it’ll eventually have its own place in space.

“It is an honor to continue the work that NASA and its partners have begun, to bring awareness to the profound benefits of human space exploration and to involve more countries and private citizens in these endeavors,” Axiom Space CEO and President Michael Suffredini said today in a news release.

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Virgin Galactic takes another step toward space

SpaceShipTwo rocket firing
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity space plane fires up its hybrid rocket motor during a test flight. (MarsScientific.com and Trumbull Studios)

Virgin Galactic sent its VSS Unity space plane skyward for a second supersonic rocket-powered test flight today, bringing the company one step closer toward reaching the space frontier.

“It was great to see our beautiful spaceship back in the air and to share the moment with the talented team who are taking us, step by step, to space,” Virgin Group billionaire founder Richard Branson said in a post-flight recap. “Seeing Unity soar upwards at supersonic speeds is inspiring and absolutely breathtaking. We are getting ever closer to realizing our goals.”

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Orion Span plans to put space hotel in orbit by 2022

Oron Span's Aurora Station
An artist’s conception shows Orion Span’s Aurora Station. (Orion Span Illustration)

A startup called Orion Span says it’s planning to open a luxury hotel in orbit in 2022, but a lot of the details have yet to be filled in.

The plan to launch the module into space, and take reservations from customers for multimillion-dollar trips, was announced today at the Space 2.0 Summit in San Jose, Calif.

Orion Span says its hotel habitat, dubbed Aurora Station, will be about the size of a large private jet’s cabin, with 5,650 cubic feet of pressurized space. It’ll accommodate up to six residents at a time, including two professional crew members.

The flight plan calls for the module to be launched into a 200-mile-high orbit in late 2021, and host its first guests in 2022.

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SpaceShipTwo goes supersonic in milestone flight

SpaceShipTwo flight
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, christened VSS Unity, fires up its hybrid rocket motor for the first time. (Mars Scientific / Trumbull Studios Photo)

Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane flew a smooth, supersonic test flight today during its first rocket-powered outing since the first SpaceShipTwo broke up three and a half years ago.

The craft christened VSS Unity has taken flight a dozen times since its debut in February 2016, but the previous 11 tests didn’t involve lighting up the plane’s hybrid rocket motor.

That’s what made today’s flight test at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port special: After carrying the plane and its two pilots to an altitude of about 46,500 feet, Virgin Galactic’s White Knight Two mothership, known as VMS Eve, released Unity from its underbelly.

Seconds later, the pilots turned on Unity’s engine for the first time.

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Jobs hint Blue Origin will soon sign up astronauts

An artist’s conception shows passengers looking through one of the windows in Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship. (Blue Origin Illustration)

Some of the nearly 200 job opportunities posted by Blue Origin suggest Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture is preparing to sign up passengers for its New Shepard suborbital spaceflights.

One listing is looking for an astronaut experience manager to help create “a highly differentiated offering that culminates in the customer becoming an astronaut.”

Another listing calls for someone to run a training program for New Shepard flight controllers.

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Get a dummy’s-eye view of Blue Origin rocket ride

Test dummy
An instrumented test dummy, nicknamed “Mannequin Skywalker,” sits next to one of the huge windows in the New Shepard crew capsule. (Blue Origin Photo)

What will people experience when they rocket to the edge of space on the New Shepard suborbital spaceship that’s currently being tested by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin venture?

An 11-minute video, recorded inside the crew capsule during this week’s test flight in West Texas, gives you a pretty good idea.

You can even watch the flight’s effect on a test subject — in this case, an instrumented crash-test dummy nicknamed “Mannequin Skywalker.” (For those who have been on another planet for the past 20 years, that name’s a tribute to Anakin Skywalker, a central character in the “Star Wars” saga.)

One of the big takeaways is that there’s no crash: At the end of the ride, the capsule drifts down to the ground and lands with what looks like a relatively gentle floof.

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Blue Origin’s rocket gives test dummy a ‘great ride’

Blue Origin booster
Blue Origin’s New Shepard booster touches down in Texas after a successful test. (Blue Origin Photo)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos says his space venture, Blue Origin, launched the latest version of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship today for the company’s first test flight in 14 months, with an instrumented test dummy seated aboard.

“He had a great ride,” Bezos said tonight in a tweet.

The uncrewed, straight-up, straight-down trip was conducted at Blue Origin’s testing ground in West Texas. The video that Bezos included with his tweet showed the New Shepard blasting off and rising above a wide-open spread of ranchland.

In addition to the dummy, which was nicknamed “Mannequin Skywalker,” the New Shepard crew capsule carried 12 commercial, research and educational payloads, Blue Origin said.

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SpaceShipTwo flies a ‘dry run’ for blastoff

SpaceShipTwo
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity glides through a test flight. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic said its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane today executed a successful gliding flight test that was “essentially a dry run for rocket-powered flights.”

“Our major first today though was that with the exception of the rocket motor fuel grain … we flew with all the spaceship’s principal propulsion components on-board and live,” the company said in a post-flight statement.

The hybrid propulsion system’s tanks were pressurized with helium and nitrous oxide, and the plane carried a ballast tank filled with a half-ton of water to simulate the weight and positioning of the solid-rocket motor. The pilots even practiced venting nitrous oxide while the rocket plane, christened VSS Unity, was still mounted on its White Knight Two mothership.

The mothership, known as VMS Eve, carried Unity to an altitude of more than 40,000 feet and released it for flight. Unity then glided back down to its home base at Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

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