The new post-shuttle NASA has said it aims to work more cooperatively with private space industry and outside sources of innovation in writing the next chapter in space exploration and science, and the agency is putting its money where its mouth is. After selecting 30 future technology proposals for funding earlier this week, NASA has now inked a number of much larger contracts with seven private space companies--including Virgin Galactic--to integrate and fly various technology payloads aboard their suborbital spacecraft.
We single out Virgin because its SpaceShipTwo is the furthest spacecraft along, development-wise, which means it could soon be ferrying scientific payloads into suborbital space, making it the first commercial company to take that role over from NASA in the post-shuttle era. SpaceShipTwo is already undergoing flight tests and could begin commercial operation as soon as next year (though that's probably optimistic).
That's a big deal, because it's a stepping stone toward fulfilling NASA's vision of opening up space to more scientists and technology developers, and doing it on someone else's less-expensive spacecraft. And Virgin isn't the only company with a dog in this hunt: the other companies splitting the $10 million in contracts are Armadillo Aerospace, Near Space Corp., Masten Space Systems, Up Aerospace Inc., Whittinghill Aerospace LLC, and XCOR.
Many of these companies are looking to carry tourists into space, but the overarching idea of the Flight Opportunities Program (that's the NASA funding initiative) is to cultivate a variety of ways for researchers to get their experiments--manned or unmanned--into space as well. There's a lot of benefit to be spread around in doing so.
For one, it opens up suborbital space to groups that couldn't afford it or simply couldn't make the manifest on prior NASA missions (which were quite selective and pricey per pound of cargo). It also supports the private space industry by opening up another revenue stream for the Virgins and XCORs and Mastens of the world. But perhaps most importantly for NASA it means a proliferation in space science and technology development, and technologies that fall out of this program just might become part of NASA's next-gen space transportation model.
What's the point of Virgin carried payloads? They don't go high enough to achieve orbit I didnt think.
@ johnt007871 They get you close enough, then all you have to do is get out and push! Your right, they don't go but 50,000 km, whilst you might say 100,000 km is space. Perhaps they plan on making them capable of going higher in future designs?
Anything that lowers the price per pound of getting something into orbit is good. There's just so much we could do up there, even in our own local orbit, if only the price weren't so high.
What if they simply made a rocket that normally wouldn't have the power to reach orbit, attached it by huge cables to 3 large cargo planes, and had them take off and go to whatever atmospheric height they can manage, in the direction of earth's rotation? Then they fire the rocket and it goes up to orbit. Or launch smaller payloads from the top of specially-constructed aircraft.
Let's be realistic, there is really no reason to launch rockets right from the ground anymore unless they're just too big to carry into the high atmosphere.
It takes several times more energy to reach orbit than what SpaceShip Two can do. I recall a 40x figure last time I read about the topic.
so you have a jet plane lift a rocket plane to lift a rocket.
why not cut out the middle man and launch from a large blackbird/u2 type plane?
@ johnt007871 - If you have an experiment which only takes a few seconds to run, why not take it up to sub-orbital microgravity at a fraction of the cost rather than dragging it all the way up to orbit, taking up space on the limited number of launches that do go up to the ISS.
I don't think SS2 will ever get anywhere near orbital flight, but if it is successful, SS3 will be - but I can't see that happening for a good while yet.
You are correct that SS2 will not reach heights enough for orbit; however, the height will be sufficient for certain test. Previously we have only had the capability to fly at these altitudes for very short periods of time, so now scientist will have around 6 minutes to perform test in which they previously had mere seconds.
"Virgin Galactic’s signed contract with the Southwest Research Institute is the first such agreement to fly scientists into space (over 100 kilometers or 328,000 feet above the Earth), enabling valuable microgravity, biology, climate and astronomy research." - http://spacefellowship.com/news/art25047/virgin-galactic-to-fly-scientists-to-space.html
In short there will be more than a sufficient amount of test which can be performed to warrant the value of this ship.
obviously there is scientific value in these suborbital flights, virgin galactic is a jet plane that launches a small rocket plane into space, it is not fast enough to reach orbit so it glides back to earth, this gives many scientists access to the upper atmosphere and the micro-gravity in space that they normally would not have access to, spacex will be going to the ISS probably before virgin galactic makes its first paying rides, for more info go to http://www.virgingalactic.com/ and http://www.spacex.com/