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GeekWire

Virgin Galactic downplays billionaire space race

Would Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson try to steal a march on Blue Origin (and Amazon) founder Jeff Bezos when it comes down to which billionaire flies first on their own suborbital spaceship?

There’s been some buzz about that question in the wake of this week’s announcement that Bezos will be among the first people to travel to the edge of space in Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Branson was quick to tweet his congratulations when Bezos’ plans came to light, but also told followers to “watch this space.”

And today, Parabolic Arc’s Doug Messier — who’s long reported on Virgin Galactic’s ups and downs from its home base in Mojave, Calif. — quoted an unnamed source as saying that the company was working on a plan to put Branson aboard its VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane for a trip beyond 50 miles in altitude over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

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Cosmic Science

Supersonic flight and suborbital science feel the boom

Boom Supersonic attracts a big-name customer, Virgin Galactic signs up another researcher for a suborbital spaceflight, and new questions are raised about NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Get the details on the Web:

United boosts Boom Supersonic

United Airlines says it’s agreed to buy 15 of Boom Supersonic’s faster-than-sound jets once they come onto the market. Colorado-based Boom is gearing up to start flight testing for a subscale prototype of its Overture jet, known as the XB-1. Those tests are slated to open the way for the Overture’s rollout in 2025, first flight in 2026 and the start of commercial air service at speeds of up to Mach 1.7 by 2029. That could cut Seattle-to-Tokyo travel time from 8.5 hours to 4.5 hours.

The deal makes United the first U.S. airline to sign a purchase agreement with Boom, providing a significant boost to the startup. Boom says it now has purchase agreements and options for 70 Overture jets in its order book. But wait, there’s more: The jets will be designed to use a type of sustainable aviation fuel that’s meant to allow for flight operations with net-zero carbon emissions.

Virgin Galactic signs up science star

Virgin Galactic is reserving a suborbital spaceflight on VSS Unity, its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, for bioastronautics researcher Kellie Gerardi. During her flight, the timing of which hasn’t yet been set, Gerardi will support a bio-monitoring experiment drawn up by Carré Technologies Inc. (Hexoskin) with the support of the Canadian Space Agency, as well as a free-floating fluid configuration experiment.

Gerardi, who’s affiliated with the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences, is also known for TikTok videos and Instagram postings that explore the intersection of her career and her personal life. She joins planetary scientist Alan Stern in holding a reservation for a dedicated research flight on Virgin Galactic. Last month, the company conducted its first 50-mile-high, rocket-powered flight test from its home base at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Commercial service could begin within the coming year.

The latest buzz on the Webb Telescope

NASA is fine-tuning the schedule for this year’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, widely seen as the successor to the 21-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. The space agency had been targeting Oct. 31 for launch of the $10 billion observatory from French Guiana, using a European Ariane 5 rocket. But logistical complications are leading NASA to look at launch dates in November or early December.

Another complication has to do with the telescope’s name: NASA’s Paul Hertz is reported as saying at this week’s meeting of a space science advisory committee that the space agency is reviewing the historical record surrounding James Webb, the late NASA administrator after whom the telescope is named. A petition circulating among astronomers has called for a new name because of claims that Webb acquiesced to homophobic policies during the 1950s and 1960s.

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Universe Today

Virgin Galactic reaches space frontier over New Mexico

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane crossed its 50-mile-high space boundary over New Mexico for the first time today, after months of challenges.

The trip by VSS Unity marks the first time a spacecraft has been launched so high from a New Mexico spaceport. Unity passed the 50-mile mark twice during tests at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, in 2018 and 2019. Since then, the plane and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, dubbed VMS Eve, have been transferred to their operational home base at New Mexico’s Spaceport America.

“Today’s flight sees New Mexico become the third U.S. state to launch humans to space,” after Florida and California, Virgin Galactic said in a post-mission press release.

Virgin Galactic goes with the U.S. Air Force’s 50-mile definition for the boundary of space — rather than the internationally recognized 100-kilometer (62-mile) boundary, known as the Karman Line.

Today’s flight followed the standard profile for a SpaceShipTwo trip: The twin-fuselage Eve made an airplane-style takeoff from Spaceport America with Unity bolted to its underbelly. Around the target altitude of 44,000 feet, Unity was released from its mothership and fired up its hybrid rocket engine to rise spaceward.

Test pilots Dave Mackay and CJ Sturckow guided Unity to its peak altitude of 55.45 miles, cheered on by Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and other VIPs who gathered at Spaceport America.

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Cosmic Space

A new SpaceShip and a falling Starship

Virgin Galactic rolls out the successor to SpaceShipTwo, debris from SpaceX’s failed Starship test flight sparks questions from the FAA, and Blue Origin seeks to expand its rocket manufacturing site in Florida. Get the details on the Web:

Say hello to SpaceShip III

The next iteration of Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered space plane looks like a shinier version of SpaceShipTwo, but Space News reports that the structure of the vehicle has been adjusted to make it lighter and more efficient as well as easier to build, inspect and maintain.

The first craft in the SpaceShip III line has been christened VSS Imagine, with flight tests due to begin this summer. The second SpaceShip III, VSS Inspire, is under construction in Mojave, Calif. Virgin Galactic is still considering whether to build a third III or move ahead to a next-generation space vehicle. Meanwhile, SpaceShipTwo (a.k.a. VSS Unity) is due to take on another flight test in May, eventually leading up to suborbital space tours for paying customers.

Starship breakup sparks questions

Today wasn’t a good day for SpaceX’s Starship flight test program. The company’s latest super-rocket prototype, SN11, was launched amid obscuring fog at the Boca Chica manufacturing and test facility in South Texas. The craft blasted through the murk to an altitude of 10 kilometers, as planned, but “something significant happened shortly after landing burn start,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reported in a tweet. According to Ars Technica, there were indications of trouble with the rocket’s belly flop maneuver on the way down.

The result? SN11 broke up into pieces, including lots of pieces that rained down on the area around the launch pad. “At least the crater is in the right place!” Musk tweeted. He said the problem should be corrected for SN15, which is due to roll out to the launch pad in a few days. The Verge reports that the Federal Aviation Administration will oversee SpaceX’s investigation of the anomaly, and that investigators want more information about the reports of falling debris.

Blue Origin to expand rocket factory

Blue Origin New Glenn rocket factory
Blue Origin has its New Glenn rocket factory in Florida. (Blue Origin Photo)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning a major expansion of its Florida manufacturing site, the Orlando Business Journal reports. Development plans filed with Florida state officials on March 26 indicate that the company will expand into 70 acres just south of its existing Cape Canaveral campus. The acreage is an abandoned citrus grove that’s part of NASA’s property at Kennedy Space Center and is being leased to Blue Origin, according to the Orlando Business Journal. (Orlando’s WFTV picked up the report.)

Blue Origin hasn’t announced a construction timeline for the project it calls “South Campus Phase 2.” The centerpiece of the campus is a 750,000-square-foot manufacturing complex where Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket is being built. New Glenn is currently due to make its launch debut in late 2022.

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Universe Today

Virgin Galactic’s first New Mexico space shot fizzles

Virgin Galactic lit up SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor for the first time in the skies over New Mexico today, but only for an instant before the engine shut down and the plane glided back to a safe landing at Spaceport America.

The flight test team had hoped that the SpaceShipTwo craft known as VSS Unity might make it all the way to the 50-mile space milestone with two test pilots at the controls.

Unity has made it that high up twice before, in 2018 and 2019, when the test operation was based at Mojave Air and Space Port in California — but this was the first powered test flight planned since operations moved to Spaceport America.

Today’s outing followed up on two glide tests conducted in May and June of this year. All appeared normal during the flight’s early phases. VSS Unity was carried into the air by its twin-fuselage mothership, known as WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve, and was released to fly free at an altitude of more than 40,000 feet.

webcast provided via NASASpaceflight.com showed the flash of the plane’s hybrid rocket motor lighting up, but only for a second.

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Cosmic Space

Virgin Galactic preps for next suborbital steps

Virgin Galactic is gearing up for its first spaceflight from its new home base at New Mexico’s Spaceport America this fall — and says planetary scientist Alan Stern will be among the first commercial spacefliers.

“This is the first selection of a private-sector researcher to fly with NASA funding on commercial vehicles,” Stern said in a news release.

Stern has never flown in space, but he has a lot of space experience: He’s best-known as the principal investigator for NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt — which is hurtling outward on the edge of the solar system, ready for its next assignment.

He also has played roles in more than two dozen other space missions, and served as an associate administrator for science at NASA as well as the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s board chairman and founder of the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group.

During his upcoming spaceflight, which is yet to be scheduled, Stern will practice astronomical observations using a low-light-level camera that was previously employed during space shuttle flights. He’ll also be fitted with sensors that will monitor his vital signs from just before the two-hour flight until after its landing.

Alan Stern
Alan Stern is associate vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute. (SwRI / Purdue Photo)

Stern’s home institution, the Southwest Research Institute, bought tickets to fly on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane almost a decade ago — and his personal interest in taking a trip to space goes back even further in time. Back in 2009, Stern told me that scientific research was likely to become the killer app for suborbital spaceflight.

“You spark this industry with tourists, but I predict in the next decade the research market is going to be bigger than the tourist market,” Stern said at the time.

A decade later, the unexpected twist turned out to be that suborbital research flights preceded tourism trips as money-makers for Virgin Galactic and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. Just this week, Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship flew a dozen experiments for paying customers on an uncrewed test flight to the edge of space and back.  Scientific payloads have become a standard add-on for Virgin Galactic’s crewed test flights as well.

SpaceShipTwo’s last trip past its 50-mile-high space boundary took place back in February 2019. Since then, Virgin Galactic has moved the focus of flight operations from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port to New Mexico’s Spaceport America. Meanwhile, NASA has been working out the procedures to fund suborbital flights for researchers.

Now the stars seem to be aligning for commercial operations: Today, Virgin Galactic laid out the roadmap that it says should lead to SpaceShipTwo Unity’s first test flight to space and back from Spaceport America this fall.

The company said it’s conducting a series of rehearsals on the ground — and the pilots are using SpaceShipTwo’s carrier airplane, known as WhiteKnightTwo or VMS Eve, as an “in-flight simulator” for the approach and landing.

Chief pilot Dave Mackay explained that “the crew can practice the identical approach and landing pattern to the one they will fly in Unity – with much of the same information displays, and the same view out the window.”

Three scientific payloads will ride on SpaceShipTwo during the powered test flight, thanks to funding from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. There’ll just be the two pilots on board — Stern and other would-be passengers will have to wait a while longer.

In an application filed with the Federal Communications Commission, Virgin Galactic says it has a “crewed, powered test flight” scheduled for Oct. 22, to be preceded by practice flights by VMS Eve. But that date isn’t written in stone (or even carbon composite).

“Although preparations are going well, we are not quite at the stage where we can confirm specific planned flight dates for either our VSS Unity or VMS Eve test flights,” Virgin Galactic said in today’s update.

All of which means Alan Stern – and hundreds of other potential spacefliers who have signed up for trips on SpaceShipTwo – will probably be watching their e-mailbox (and Virgin Galactic’s Twitter account) very closely in the weeks to come.

Update for 5:49 p.m. PT: I’ve revised this report to make clear that Stern won’t be aboard SpaceShipTwo during its next test flight to space in New Mexico – though I’m betting he’d like to be. 

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Cosmic Tech

Virgin Galactic unveils supersonic plane concept

Virgin Galactic has taken the wraps off a concept for an airplane capable of flying three times the speed of sound, to be developed with support from Boeing and Rolls-Royce.

The project would be distinct from Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital space plane program, which is closing in on the start of commercial operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Today’s announcement follows through on the company’s heightened focus on high-speed aircraft development, which is backed by a $20 million investment from Boeing HorizonX and supported by a deal with NASA to collaborate on supersonic projects.

Such an initiative seems likely to pit Virgin Galactic against aerospace industry players that have a head start in the race to revive supersonic travel — ranging from SpaceX and Lockheed Martin to Boom Supersonic, a startup that Virgin Galactic partnered with years ago.

Virgin Galactic says it has signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding with Rolls-Royce for the development of the plane’s engine propulsion system, has put the design through a mission concept review in cooperation with NASA representatives, and is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to lay out a certification framework for the plane.

George Whitesides, who recently transitioned from CEO to a new position known as chief space officer to work on new projects, said the company has made “great progress so far” on the concept.

“We are excited to complete the mission concept review and unveil this initial design concept of a high-speed aircraft, which we envision as blending safe and reliable commercial travel with an unrivaled customer experience,” Whitesides said in a news release.

The basic parameters of the design include a Mach 3 delta-wing aircraft that would have the capacity to fly nine to 19 people at an altitude above 60,000 feet. Virgin Galactic could provide customized cabin layouts to address customer needs, including business-class or first-class seating. The plane would be designed to use existing airport infrastructure and lead the way in the use of sustainable aviation fuel.

The company provided no timetable for development. Nevertheless, the stock market’s initial reaction to the news was positive — boosting Virgin Galactic’s share price in early trading today.

Commercial supersonic travel faded away in 2003 with the retirement of the British-French Concorde, due to concerns about cost and sonic-boom restrictions. In recent years, NASA and a variety of aerospace ventures have been looking into “quiet-boom” technologies that might make supersonic flight more palatable (and satisfy regulators).

NASA has partnered with Lockheed Martin to build a test aircraft known as the X-59 QueSST, or Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator. The X-59’s first flight is due in the 2021-2022 time frame.

Meanwhile, Aerion Supersonic, Boom Supersonic and Spike Aerospace are among a new crop of supersonic startups hoping to field planes and win FAA certification in the years ahead.

Back in 2016, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said his company would assist Boom with engineering, design, manufacturing, flight testing and operations — and would take a purchase option on the first 10 airframes. Today’s announcement suggests that Virgin Galactic is now moving in a different direction.

For what it’s worth, Boom is due to roll out its prototype XB-1 supersonic jet in October.

Some wondered whether Virgin Galactic will be arriving too late to the supersonic soiree, or whether its plans for a high-speed aircraft were sufficiently realistic.

“Had to recheck the date on the calendar. Nope, not April 1,” Aviation Week’s Steve Trimble tweeted.

Mars Society President Robert Zubrin, meanwhile, tweeted an illustration showing SpaceX’s planned Starship super-rocket and wrote, “Mach 3 won’t cut it. The competition will be doing Mach 25.”

If Virgin Galactic’s supersonic airplane turns out to be vaporware, at least it’s cool-looking vaporware. Check out these renderings (all copyrighted by Virgin Galactic and used with permission):

Update for 2:30 p.m. PT Aug. 3: Virgin Galactic posted a second-quarter loss of $63 million with zero revenue today, sparking an after-hours drop in its share price. But that wasn’t the most significant news for space fans.

The company said it’s planning to conduct two powered test flights of its SpaceShipTwo Unity rocket plane in New Mexico over the next few months. If those tests prove successful, Branson would get on board for a high-profile SpaceShipTwo flight in the first quarter of 2021.

Virgin Galactic also said it entered into deposit agreements with 12 customers for orbital spaceflights. In June, the company announced a Space Act Agreement with NASA to develop a readiness program for private-sector astronauts heading to the International Space Station.

This report was published on Cosmic Log. Accept no substitutes.

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GeekWire

Virgin Galactic offers a VR peek inside SpaceShipTwo

More than a decade after Virgin Galactic unveiled a swoopy, spacey look for the passenger cabin of its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, the company took the wraps off a more down-to-Earth design that reflects what spacefliers will actually see when they climb into their seats.

And in a move befitting this era of social distancing, the big reveal was done with the aid of virtual reality.

Virgin Galactic went so far as to lend out Oculus Quest headsets to journalists, including yours truly, so we could get an advance peek at a computer-generated interior with an eye-filling view of Earth and space out the window.

The VR experience let me do something I could never do during a real-life rocket ride: walk through the walls of the spaceship, stand on the wing … and step off into space. The thought experiment was a cosmic version of the classic VR game where you walk on a plank sticking out from the ledge of a virtual skyscraper and dare yourself to jump off. I couldn’t do it from SpaceShipTwo Unity’s wing unless I kept my eyes closed.

Get the full story (and video) from GeekWire.

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GeekWire

NASA makes plans for astronauts to go suborbital

NASA says it’ll formulate a plan to assess the safety of suborbital spacecraft — such as Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship or Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane — so that astronauts, researchers and other space agency personnel can be cleared for takeoff.

Today’s announcement, and the release of an official request for information, follows through on hints about the plan that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine dropped last week.

The effort will be spearheaded by a suborbital crew office within NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which has been overseeing the development of SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft for orbital trips to and from the International Space Station.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Virgin Galactic, NASA team up for orbital space trips

Charles Simonyi
Seattle billionaire Charles Simonyi took two privately funded trips to the International Space Station, in 2007 and 2009. (NASA Photo via Space Adventures)

Virgin Galactic says it has signed an agreement with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas to develop a new readiness program for private-sector astronauts heading to the International Space Station.

Theoretically, such astronauts could include the likes of Tom Cruise, who is looking into making a movie at the space station, according to NASA. “I’m all for that,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said last month. “We’re going to do what we can to make that happen.”

Virgin Galactic declined to comment on which customers or companies it might be partnering with, but the company said the newly established program would identify candidates interested in purchasing a ride to the space station, procure their transportation to orbit, and arrange for on-orbit resources as well as resources on the ground.

Some elements of the orbital training program would make use of Spaceport America in New Mexico, Virgin Galactic’s base for commercial space operations.

Get the full story on GeekWire.