Over the following fortnight, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson will take off into area, as a result of they will, on spaceships designed by their respective corporations.
It’s a giant second for the non-public area business. However the query involves thoughts: who has the smarter plan?
A billionaire’s area race
On Could 5 Blue Origin, owned by former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, introduced it could fly its first crew of astronauts into area on July 20 — the Apollo 11 Moon touchdown’s 52nd anniversary.
After 15 profitable take a look at flights, this would be the first crewed flight for Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship. One seat will likely be occupied by an undisclosed winner of a charity public sale, who reportedly paid US$28 million for the privilege. Two extra seats will likely be taken up by Bezos and his brother Mark.
A fourth seat will go to Wally Funk. The 82-year-old pilot was a promising candidate within the Sixties Mercury 13 ladies’s astronaut coaching programme, however wasn’t in a position to go to area due to her gender.
It wasn’t lengthy after Bezos introduced his plans that Sir Richard Branson additionally joined in, setting a launch date of July 11 — 9 days earlier than Bezos’s departure.
Branson will journey as a part of a six particular person crew on Virgin Galactic spaceplane VSS Unity. It is going to be the fourth time the VSS Unity, the precise SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, has been flown to area, however the first with a full crew.
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Each flights will likely be quick, and primarily based on completely different definitions of the place “area” begins.
Bezos’s Blue Origin has chosen to outline this because the internationally recognised Kármán line at 100 kilometres altitude. The height of the New Shepard’s trajectory will likely be simply previous this restrict.
In the meantime, Virgin Galactic has chosen the US Air Power’s definition of area at about 80km altitude. Their SpaceShipTwo usually reaches a peak altitude of round 90km throughout flight.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard
Blue Origin’s New Shepard is a totally autonomous rocket (with no pilots) which takes off virtually totally vertically from its launch website in distant West Texas.
It’s powered by a BE-3 liquid-fuelled rocket motor, which burns for round two and a half minutes till the spacecraft reaches 55km of altitude, at a pace of 900 metres per second. With its virtually vertical trajectory, that is sufficient altitude and momentum to achieve area.
As soon as the rocket motor stops burning, the booster holding the rocket motor and gas separates from the crew capsule and returns to Earth.
The entire flight will solely final ten minutes, with astronauts experiencing weightlessness close to the height altitude, earlier than their capsule re-enters the ambiance and drifts again all the way down to Earth. Parachutes will assist with deceleration.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane will likely be carried as much as 15km altitude by a service plane, the WhiteKnightTwo. At this level it should launch itself into area, beginning above the thick decrease ambiance.
SpaceShipTwo will detach from WhiteKnightTwo and begin its hybrid rocket motor engine which burns for a minute, giving the spaceplane sufficient momentum to achieve its 90km peak altitude.
Just like the New Shepard, passengers will expertise a number of minutes of weightlessness earlier than re-entering the ambiance.
Because of its low pace upon re-entry, SpaceShipTwo will carry out a “feathered re-entry”, the place it should rotate its wings up and use them to maintain secure, like a shuttlecock, because it falls all the way down to 15km altitude.
It would then as soon as once more turn out to be a spaceplane and glide again to the bottom underneath the management of pilots, prepared for re-use.
A rocket versus a spaceplane
There are a number of variations and similarities within the corporations’ approaches.
Each may have quick flights, permitting them to utilize suborbital launch trajectories. This implies they are going to obtain the fitting altitude to achieve area, however received’t go into orbit. This strategy requires a lot much less gas than an orbital flight.
Suborbital trajectories additionally make re-entry considerably slower, so the heavy warmth shielding that might be required when getting back from orbit received’t be wanted. Additionally, each purpose to re-use their spaceships to decrease the prices of operation over time.
Past that, nevertheless, their approaches are fairly completely different.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard is actually a big “sounding rocket” These are small analysis rockets which carry out suborbital hops so science experiments may be carried out throughout transient journeys to area.
It additionally makes use of a liquid rocket motor which, whereas more durable to design, is mostly safer since it may be throttled throughout operation (and even shut off if required).
New Shepard, which has carried out 15 profitable uncrewed take a look at flights, is total a easy spacecraft. It will doubtless make it cheaper and safer in the long term.
In distinction, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is rather more superior. It’s launched mid-air and is rocket-powered — an strategy that hasn’t been correctly explored since NASA and the US Air Power’s X-15 program within the Sixties.
For a profitable flight, SpaceShipTwo have to be launched whereas being carried by a service plane, should ignite its rocket motor within the air, stow its wings for re-entry after which un-stow them once more to glide dwelling. This sophisticated process has already come unstuck a number of occasions.
A latest SpaceShipTwo flight was aborted as a consequence of a pc malfunction after its rocket motor ignited. It landed safely however didn’t attain area.
And in 2014, the unintentional activation of the feathered re-entry system throughout ascent to area led to destruction of the primary SpaceShipTwo mannequin, the VSS Enterprise, tragically killing the co-pilot.
Range versus simplicity
Whereas the prices of a seat on each spaceships will likely be eye watering, solely Virgin Atlantic have introduced an official price ticket: US$250,000 per seat on a SpaceShipTwo flight. It’s anticipated Blue Origin’s New Shepard will likely be priced equally.
The simplicity of Blue Origin’s system means it should in all probability be higher outfitted to cut back prices over time. However simplicity may be its downfall. In the meantime, SpaceShipTwo is a extra complicated spacecraft with pilots. This might show extra enticing to clients.