From launch to orbit: The new commercial space pioneers

Who’s who in the new astronautics industry

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Mars One

While not strictly tourism, I’m going to lump this one straight in with the tat. Mars One is essentially an interplanetary mashup of X-Factor and Big Brother, with candidates being selected by web vid audiences and the whole mission being broadcast live 24/7.

Mars One

Mars One’s Mars Transit Vehicle hasn’t yet got past the CGI stage

The intention is to have humans on Mars by 2023 through a series of one-way missions where the colonists will remain on the red planet with no plan (or hope) of returning. A number of supply missions are planned and the colony is to grow from four to 20 inhabitants over ten years.

Criticism of the scheme comes largely from those who question the viability of raising the necessary capital solely from advertising, donations, merchandise sales and licensing of media rights. Time scales are a further issue, and although Mars One has identified many likely suppliers for the individual components required to fulfil the mission, it hasn’t yet entered into contracts with any of them.

Virgin Galactic

Arguably the most famous and well funded of the new private space endeavours is mogul Sir Richard Branson’s tourism arm, Virgin Galactic, featuring the Burt Rutan-designed, Scaled Composites-built SpaceShipTwo and its launch counterpart, WhiteKnightTwo. With a reported 600 punters already said to have forked out at least £120,000 each for a two-hour trip to experience total weightlessness, it certainly seems there are plenty of folk keen to try it out.

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo

Developed from the $10m X-Prize winning SpaceShipOne, the craft carries two pilots and six passengers to 50,000 feet under the wings of WhiteKnightTwo before igniting its hybrid rocket motor. Following a minute or so of powered flight the spaceship will coast to a target altitude of 110km at a peak velocity of roughly 1.2km/s (4,200km/h, or 2,600mph), putting it firmly in the sub-orbital class. To give an idea of what would be needed to make the jump to hyperspace orbital capability, a low Earth orbit requires velocities in the region of 7-8km/s to maintain free-fall without fiery impact.

Not everyone is jumping on board the tourism train: there are a few private space outfits hoping to make technological advances without drawing the stigmatised “populist” epithet.

Excalibur Almaz

With the origins of its technology clouded in 1960s Soviet secrecy (since declassified), Excalibur Almaz was founded in 2005 and states its goal as achieving “affordable and reliable transportation of humans and cargo to Low Earth Orbit, libration point, the Moon and beyond.”

Having bought the remnants of the Almaz programme from Roscosmos, the firm has the distinct advantage of being in possession of hardware that has already been flight proven. Incidentally, the “libration point” is the spot between the Earth and the Moon where the two bodies’ gravitational pulls match and effectively cancel each other out.

Excalibur Almaz capsule

Designed for Russia’s moon shot, now being readied for commercial use

The key piece of kit acquired is the VA capsule, initially developed for the Soviet Moon shot and bearing a striking resemblance to the hardware used for the same purpose on Apollo. Now that they’ve blown out the cobwebs and updated the electronics and control systems, Excalibur reckons that it will be good to go by the middle of the decade.

Masten Space Systems

Originally hailing from Santa Clara and now headquartered in Mojave, Masten has developed a number of prize-winning rocket craft. The firm is focused on VTVL (Vertical Take-off, Vertical Landing) capabilities for sub-orbital science missions which it hopes will eventually lead to orbital endeavours.

Masten Space Systems' Xaero-B

Aiming for 6km: Xaero-B

In 2009, Masten’s Xombie and Xoie vehicles competed in the Lunar Challenge X Prize, between them taking home $1.15m in winnings and beating Armadillo Aerospace while they were about it. More recently, the Xaero craft completed 110 successful sub-kilometre test flights before a stuck throttle valve caused its destruction on the subsequent 1km attempt. Its successor, Xaero-B, is currently undergoing preflight testing with a view to reaching 6km.

On an altogether grander scale, Masten is also developing Xeus, effectively a Centaur rocket upper stage - as used on Atlas, Titan and Saturn rockets in the past - with retrofitted VTVL capability. Initial estimates suggest that such a vehicle would be capable of delivering and returning a five tonne payload on a Lunar mission.

Reaction Engines

At home in Oxfordshire, Reaction Engines has two major projects in its portfolio: the Sabre engine and the Skylon spaceplane, both reliant on Reaction’s novel heat exchanger technology.

Reaction Engines' SKYLON spaceplane

Shuttle, Euro-style: Reaction Engines’ Skylon

This is all some years away from completion but Reaction is making real progress. Last year it successfully tested the intricate windings of 1mm diameter pipe that make up its liquid helium precooler. This will eventually be mounted in the intake tract of the Sabre (Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) where it will cool down the incoming hypersonic air to allow atmospheric oxygen to be compressed and burned with liquid hydrogen in the rocket engine.

However, Reaction Engines currently relies almost entirely on public grants for funding. Fortunately, the European Space Agency (ESA) has taken a shine to Skylon and has just thrown €1 million (£860,000) into the development pot.

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