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Science by Spaceplane

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The Suborbital Research Association (SRA), created in Brussels in June 2013, seeks to raise the awareness of the scientific community to the possibilities for scientific and technological research purposes offered by long suborbital trajectories, yielding several minutes of continuous microgravity at an attractive cost. The SRA, which is open to all forms of cooperation, has set its objectives: “to encourage, to assist, to facilitate and to promote suborbital scientific research; to give the necessary assistance, within the possibilities of the Association, to the practical realization of fundamental and applied scientific research in the suborbital environment, independently and in a complementary manner to existing structures; to organize or to participate in the organization of promotion events of scientific research in suborbital flights to the general public, the youth and the students.” The paper presents the SRA and put in context the proposed use of suborbital platforms for microgravity research.
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A British Interplanetary Society Publication
Vol 58 No 11 November 2016 £4.50
Spaceplanes for science
Britain’s Shuttle
Habitats for
Spaceflight Vol 58 November 2016 403
David Baker, PhD, BSc, FBIS, FRHS
Ann Page
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Published by the British Interplanetary Society
Volume 58 No. 11 November 2016
Regular Features
Cover image: A dramatic interpretation of NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft arriving at Bennu in August
2018 where it will remain for two years seven months before returning to Earth in 2023. NASA
412-415 Give me SPACE!
Gerard van de Haar reviews the candidate concepts for NASA’s
NextStep-2 technology competition embracing potential habitation
modules for supporting deep-space exploration. He also explains how
NASA is already conducting tests with simulated isolation experiments
using volunteers.
404-407 News Analysis – Failure or flaw? – New Glenn from Blue Origin
408 Brieng notes – news shorts from around the world
409-411 ISS Report – 16 August-15 September 2016
430-431 Satellite Digest – 526 August 2016
432-434 Flashback – A regular feature looking back 50 years ago this month
436-437 Society News – BIS-Italia at star party
398 What’s On
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416-417 Skylark at Heritage Museum
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418-423 Britain’s Space Shuttle
Dan Sharp previews publication of his book on British attempts to
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little-known project which failed on the altar of political indecision and
vacillation, leaving the Americans, impressed with the British work, to
pick up the challenge.
424-428 Science by spaceplane
Vladmir Pletser of the Suborbital Research Association is pushing hard
to get space tourism married to real scientic research and to guide the
use of suborbital flying machines into the hands of investigators and
experimenters seeking a middle road between sounding rockets and
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424 Spaceflight Vol 58 November 2016
Science by spaceplane
By Vladimir Pletser FBIS, SRA Secretary
Suborbital ights will soon be available
to the general public for space tourism.
This frequent access to microgravity
also opens up promising prospects for
the progress of scientic research and
technological development. The Suborbital
Research Association (SRA) wants to bring
it closer to the international community of
researchers, scientists and engineers.
Space is not only innitely large. It is also
a great stimulant of academic and intellectual
pursuits, with the questioning of phenomena
and processes in physics, chemistry, biology,
etc. Weightlessness or microgravity offers
opportunities for creativity and innovation for
research and technology. Weightlessness
is permanent, once in orbit, as on the ISS
(International Space Station) or on recoverable
capsules or automatic platforms. But the price
to gain access to these systems is very high.
Aircraft parabolic ights allow conditions of
microgravity for only approximately 20 seconds
at a time, which is not long enough to study
complex phenomena.
An alternative exists in the form of a long
parabola which, with a suborbital trajectory
to an altitude of 100 km, allows a continuous
microgravity environment for a few minutes,
and this for an attractive cost. The rise of space
tourism with suborbital ights at the edge of
space will make this alternative possible.
A group of Scientists involved in space
research have created the Suborbital Research
Association (SRA, www.suborbital-research.
org) whose goals are to promote the suborbital
scientic and technical research aboard
suborbital platforms that will be available in the
Virgin Galactic anticipates ights to the edge of space for fee-paying scientists as well as tourists. Virgin Galactic
coming years. This will provide the necessary
assistance to the practical realization of
fundamental and applied scientic research in
suborbital environment and promote scientic
research in suborbital ights to the general
public, youth and students.
The Association aims at gathering scientists
together to help them in accessing research
opportunities in suborbital ights by considering
the different suborbital platforms. For this, the
Association will collect funds from institutional,
industrial and private sponsors in order to allow
the realization of selected experiments. All
elds of research on suborbital platforms are
considered, from life and physical sciences in
microgravity to astrophysics and atmospheric
research, as well as tests of space technology
in the broadest sense.
Currently, the only platforms enabling
experiments involving humans as subjects of
experiments or operators are aircraft parabolic
ights or the International Space Station (ISS).
Aircraft parabolic ights are limited by the
microgravity time (20s) and the International
Space Station is limited by the cost of
experiments and the long preparation time.
These two factors handicap the research to be
carried out by or on human beings. Therefore,
new ight possibilities must be considered and
offered to researchers. Moreover, it is also
proposed to embark on every ight opportunity
at least one experiment proposed by students,
tomorrow’s researchers.
Weightlessness, or absence of gravity effects,
is the new environment that today’s astronauts
have to face and that tomorrow’s space
travellers will have to get used to. With the
advent of the International Space Station, this
environment of weightlessness is the place
where new scientic and technical research is
Space technologies, already abundantly
present in our everyday life, will be more
prominent in tomorrow’s society. From casting
of new materials and alloys to the study of
uids without the constraint of their own
weight, from adaptation of living systems,
including humans, to biotechnology, with
creation of new molecules for pharmaceutical
use, the weightlessness environment enables
new progress in scientic areas already under
exploration and will enable new discoveries in
areas still not currently investigated.
Weightlessness is the environment obtained
in a vehicle which is subject to the sole force
of gravitational attraction, in a state of free fall.
Inside this vehicle in free fall, the gravitational
attraction is exactly balanced by inertial forces
existing in the referential frame of the vehicle in
free fall, weightlessness and gravity effects are
thus cancelled.
This ideal state is however hardly feasible
in practice and small residual forces still exist,
yielding a microgravity environment. This
environment is attained aboard orbital space
platforms, where Earth’s gravitational force is
balanced by inertial forces due to the orbital
motion. This environment is also achieved on
Earth in experimental automatic free falling
platforms and aircraft-laboratories describing
parabolic trajectories offering periods of
microgravity of a few seconds and only
Spaceflight Vol 58 November 2016 425
claiming the life of one of the pilots, destroyed
completely the vehicle and caused further
XCOR Aerospace develops the Lynx
spaceship, a small spaceplane which takes off
like a normal aircraft from a space airport in
the California Mojave Desert, carrying a pilot
and a passenger both sitting at the front of the
The spaceplane is powered by four liquid
propellant rocket motors to its apogee before
returning to land as a glider. Three models are
planned: Mark I, Mark II and Mark III.
The rst, Mark I, is planned to y to Mach 2
to an altitude of 60-65 km. Based on the results
of Mark I, the second, Mark II, would start its
ights one year later at Mach 3 up to an altitude
of 100 km. The third, Mark III, would follow later
The cockpit of the Lynx is not wide enough to
oat freely. In addition, the cabin conguration
is such that experiments can be installed next
to the pilot’s seat in a dedicated rack with
mid-deck lockers or behind the pilot’s seat in
the cockpit. Alternatively, the rack next to the
pilot seat can be replaced by a second seat
for a passenger astronaut carrying small
experimental equipment into his suit pockets.
Experiments behind the pilot seat can then
be activated by the passenger astronaut. Two
canister compartments located at the rear
of the spaceplane can also accommodate
small experiments or be used to launch small
satellites of the cubesat type. Finally, the
Mark III spaceplane will carry a container on
the top for automatic or remotely controlled
experiments or to launch satellites.
Other technical details are given in the Lynx
technical specications (
The cost of a ight is presently $150,000 on the
Lynx Mark I and $250,000 on the Lynx Mark II.
Blue Origin ( develops
the New Shephard system, a fully reusable
vertical take-off, vertical landing single stage
rocket, called the Propulsion Module, and a
Crew Capsule.
The New Shephard system is launched from
a base close to the town of Van Horn in West
Texas. The Propulsion Module propels the
Crew Capsule and separates at an altitude of
approx. 72 km. The Crew Capsule continues
to ascend up to its apogee of about 100 km
before returning safely to ground under a set of
The Crew Capsule will carry six passengers
for a yet undisclosed cost (but most likely
similar to the one of a Lynx Mark I ight).
However, rst ights will be used to y
unmanned experiments.
Five test ights have been conducted
successfully in 2015 and 2016 (29 April and
23 November 2015, 22 January, 2 April and 19
June 2016), with the technological prowess of
landing the Propulsion Module back vertically.
Manned test ights could be started as early as
2017 with commercial exploitation in 2018.
Note however that launch dates for manned
ights are not specied rmly by any of these
companies as development of space systems
usually take longer than what was anticipated
at the beginning of the project. Nevertheless,
despite of all technical and operational hurdles
XCOR has simplied the process through its Lynx spaceplane capable of taking off and landing from
and to a standard runway. XCOR
applicable to short-term experiments.
Suborbital ights of sounding rockets and,
in the near future, of spaceplanes offer a
microgravity environment of several minutes
suitable for other types of longer experiments.
After the launch with accelerations of several
g, the microgravity environment is obtained
during the ballistic phase after engines have
been turned off. No forces other than gravity
act on the vehicle in free fall for several
minutes, before decelerating in the upper
atmosphere upon re-entry and nally landing
back on ground.
Suborbital platforms
Several private companies are currently
working on the development of suborbital
vehicles that will take private astronauts and
experiments to suborbital weightlessness.
Among the 20 or so private companies
involved in the development of platforms for
suborbital ights, three American companies
retain attention by their technical advances
and the credibility of the access to space in the
near future:
The Spaceship Company (a joint venture
between Scaled Composites and Virgin
XCOR Aerospace
Blue Origin.
These three companies have different
technical approaches.
Scaled Composites won the X Prize in
2004 by ying twice to the edge of space with
its rst developed vehicle SpaceShipOne.
More than ten years later, the SpaceShipTwo
of The Spaceship Company (www. has not yet
entered in a commercial operational phase.
SpaceShipTwo takes off attached to its carrier
aircraft WhiteKnightTwo from a Space Port in
New Mexico.
At an altitude of 15,000 m, SpaceShipTwo is
jettisoned from the carrier aircraft and, powered
by a hybrid rocket to more than Mach 3, climbs
to an altitude of 110 km, where it describes a
long parabola of six minutes before re-entering
the atmosphere and landing like an aeroplane.
SpaceShipTwo carries two pilots and six
The cabin is wide enough to allow passengers
to oat freely and to look through windows.
It could be possible for a private astronaut to
take one or several small experiments into
his suit pockets. It might also be possible for
a private astronaut to embark experimental
material taking another passenger place.
The cost of a ight is presently $250,000
USD per person per ight (www.virgingalactic.
com/). However, the tragic accident of the rst
SpaceShipTwo in October 2014, in addition to
426 Spaceflight Vol 58 November 2016
that these developers have to face, suborbital
ights with passengers will be a reality in a few
Table 1 presents some technical data of the
systems proposed by these three companies.
Research platforms
The platforms used presently for microgravity
research are compared with suborbital ights
in Table 2, with respect to the level and
the duration of microgravity obtained, the
available experimental volume, the type of
interaction, the waiting time for scientists, the
approximate overall cost of a mission. The
cost by experiment is based on the following
assumptions: one experiment per fall in free fall
towers; 12 experiments per aircraft parabolic
ight campaign; ve experiments per sounding
rocket ight (these costs do not include the
costs of development of instrumentation);
a development cost of a few million and
launch of the order of €20,000/kg considered
for the ISS; three experiments per ight for
suborbital ights; if more experiments can be
accommodated, the cost per experiment would
obviously decrease (the Lynx I was taken as
an example).
From Table 2, it is seen that the only
conventional platforms for experiments with
human subjects or operators are aircraft
parabolic ights and the ISS. Moreover,
aircraft parabolic ights are limited by the
duration of microgravity (≈ 20 s) and the ISS is
limited by the cost of experiments and waiting
time. These two factors greatly handicap the
research to be carried out by or on human
beings, particularly for scientists involved in
microgravity research.
The advantages of using suborbital ights for
scientists are multiple and can be divided into
three categories.
1. Intermediate duration between parabolic
ights and ISS
Suborbital ights are a new experimental
platform, which, by providing a period of one
to six minutes, depending on the carrier, allows
users to bridge the time interval of microgravity
between aircraft parabolic ights (20 s) and
orbital ights on the ISS for experiments with
human subjects and operators.
For medical and human physiology
experiments, all scientists are unanimous that
aircraft parabolic ights allow time for observing
the start of certain changes in physiological
systems but they do not allow sufcient time
for studying the adaptation to microgravity. For
this, suborbital ights of one to six minutes are
better suited.
Furthermore, the physiological adaptation
on a time scale of one to several minutes is
not accessible for research on astronauts
launched to the ISS.
The same goes for some physical science
experiments where one would like to verify
an experimental conguration for longer than
20s before sending it to the ISS in order to
maximize the chances of success and optimize
budget investment of an orbital mission.
It should be stressed that this new
experimental means of suborbital ights is
complementary to other microgravity platforms
and cannot be substituted for these other
2. Logistical advantages for scientists
a) Ease of access
Approaches and technical reviews are
minimized and are equivalent to what scientists
are already doing for aircraft parabolic ights.
Lynx borrows conventional construction techniques from the aircraft industry for a spaceplane designed
to adapt to the needs of the scientic community. XCOR
Table 1: Comparison between SpaceShipTwo, Lynx and New Shepard.
Spacecra Spaceship Company XCOR Aerospace Blue Origin
Spaceship SpaceShipTwo launched
by WhiteKnightTwo
Lynx spaceplane;
3 models: Mark I, II and III
New Shepard
system incl. Propulsion Module
and Crew Capsule (CC)
Cabin size
L 3.66 m x diam 2.28 m
Possibility of free-oat in
Cockpit has 2 seats
No free-oat in weightlessness
CC diam. approx. 3.6 m Possibility of
free-oat in weightlessness in
front of large windows
Number of Persons 2 pilots + 6 passengers 1 pilot + 1 passenger 6 passengers
Apogee 100 km Mark I : 65 km
Mark II - III : 100 km 100 km
Weightlessness duraon 6 min. Mark I : 1 min. at < 10-2g
Mark II - III : 3-4 min. at < 10-2gApprox. 3 min.
Max. speed 4,200 km/h 3,700 km/h (Mach 3) Approx. 40,00 km/h
Mass/volume available for experiment No detailed informaon available
(1) Cabin: 20 kg
Trapezoidal volume: Hxwxl: 50 x 40.5
x (46 - 10.3) cm3
(2) 2 canisters: 3 kg,
L 20 cm x 15 cm diam
(3) Pod on roof :
Mark III : 650 kg Jul 28.53
L 340 cm, diam 76 cm
Stacked Payload Locker 11.34 kg/
Locker; Lxwxh: 51.59 x 41.78 x 22.91
Spaceflight Vol 58 November 2016 427
b) High frequency
Once entered in the commercial exploitation
phase, the suborbital platforms will y regularly
and several ights per day can be expected,
allowing frequent and rapid repetition for
experiments, thus ensuring a high scientic
c) Multidisciplinary platform
The suborbital platforms offer also the possibility
to embark several different experiments in
biomedical elds and physical sciences and
to conduct other types of experiments in the
upper atmosphere.
3. Programmatic advantages
a) Low-cost
The total cost for a ight would be between
$150,000 and $250,000, which is much more
interesting than other platforms when costs
per experiment are compared (see Table
2). If we consider accommodating three
experiments only, each experiment would cost
approximately €50,000 to €80,000, i.e. more
or less about half of the cost of an experiment
in parabolic ights, for a duration of one to six
minutes instead of 20 s.
Even for human physiology experiments, for
which typically three to six subjects are tested
per parabolic ight campaign, the costs of
suborbital platforms are less than or equivalent
to those of parabolic ight campaigns, but
with the advantage of offering a much longer
microgravity exposure.
b) Diversication of ight opportunities
The organization of a series of suborbital
space missions for leading edge scientic
experiments from researchers already selected
by space agencies and waiting for a ight
opportunity will provide independently more
frequent ight opportunities to researchers.
c) Expertise
It is important for researchers to be among
the rst users of experimental suborbital
ights before these become routine, to
build up a unique expertise in preparing and
running experiments with this new research
Participating in early suborbital ights will
allow pioneer scientists and engineers to build
up expertise as an economic asset for these
suborbital ights since these will certainly
develop in the future.
XCOR has designed the Lynx programme to provide adaptable payload space with an evolutionary
option for an additional dorsal roof box on Lynx Mk. III. XCOR
Internal payload volume provides pressurised compartments for science experiments. XCOR
Table 2: Comparison of Microgravity Plaorms.
Plaorm μg (g) Duraon Vol. (m3) Inter-acon Waing Time Cost Cost/expt
Free fall towers 10-3…-6 < 5 s < 1 TC ≈ months > 10 k€ ≈ 5 k€
Parabolic ights 10-2…-3 ≈ 20 s > 10 Hum. ≈ months - 1 year ≈ 1.5 M€ ≈ 125 k€
Sounding rockets 10-4…-5 5 - 13 min. < 1 TC > 2 years > 2 M€ > 400 k€
ISS 10-2…-5 years > 1 Hum. > 5 years > 10 M€ ≈ 1-5 M€
Lynx I/II-III 10-2…-4 1/3-4 min. < 1 Hum. ≈ months ≈ 150 k€ ≈ 50 k€
(TC = telecommands, Hum = operator or human subject).
Scientic experiments on board suborbital
platforms will be able to use either the
environment of weightlessness with,
depending on the carrier, an approximate
duration of one to six minutes, or the outer
space environment at an altitude of 60 to
65 km or up to 100 km, hardly attainable by
balloons or stratospheric aircraft or space
orbital platforms.
The scientic and technical elds in which
these experiments can be conducted
are multiples: from human physiology to
materials science, from Earth observation to
measurements of parameters of the upper
atmosphere, and from technological tests in
428 Spaceflight Vol 58 November 2016
microgravity to the qualication of the on-board
space environment. Many scientists have
already marked their interest to take part in
these ights.
Examples of scientic experiments that can
be conducted in real time on board suborbital
platforms are listed non-exhaustively in Table
In addition, pre- and post-ight experiments
can be conducted on the passenger astronauts
that will participate in these suborbital
ights to measure the degree of adaptation
to weightlessness and potential change in
physiological systems. Other experiments can
be considered and researchers are invited to
contact the Association.
To prepare today’s students, which are
tomorrow’s researchers, for research in
weightlessness and space technologies, it
is also proposed to embark on each ight an
experiment proposed by students that will be
conducted by the passenger astronaut during
the ight. This student experiment will be
selected by a scientic board and supported
by a group of engineering students.
It is evident that the interest and scientic
benets of a ight of one to six minutes in
weightlessness for experiments in physics
of uids, human physiology and biology in
microgravity justify organizing this type of
It is important to note that suborbital ights
are complementary to the other classic
experimental platforms and cannot replace
them and suborbital ights will be added to
the panoply of experimental means offered
to researchers rather than replacing them.
The use of parabolic ights and the ISS will
continue but, unfortunately, with growing costs
and delays for researchers. New opportunities
for ights must therefore be given to
This new low cost approach, economically
and scientically justied will allow continuing
the fundamental and applied research despite
the economic crisis since research is a factor
of economic recovery. In particular, space
research in microgravity is a strong factor
in economic growth, with many practical
applications in everyday life.
In the near future the Suborbital Research
Association will organize an initial series of
research ights and interested researchers
are invited to contact the Association at www. or at suborbital.ra@
Vladimir Pletser is the Secretary of the
Suborbital Research Association.
Blue Origin adopts a different operational philosophy with its New Shepard rocket and crew capsule.
Blue Origin
Table 3: Non-Exhausve List of Scienc Experiments for Suborbital Flights.
Physiology Heart rhythm and its variaons by electrocardiography
Brain electrical acvity by electroencephalography
Cognive experiments in microgravity
Biology Study of biological systems in microgravity and exposure to the space environment
and atmospheric re-entry
Chemistry of cellular membranes in microgravity
Physics of uids Formaon of mullayer system uid in microgravity
Measurement of diusion coecients in uid mixtures
Behaviour of uids near their crical point
Studies of cryogenic uids
Atmospheric physics Measurement in-situ of atmospheric parameters by radio sounding
Measurement of atmospheric Ozone and other gases
An evocative view approaching the Virgin Galactic facilities at Spaceport America in the southern part of
New Mexico. Virgin Galactic
Using Social Representations Theory, the current study modeled different information sources, “anchoring” of space travel, “objectification” of space travel and their influences on attitude towards, support for, and attractiveness of space travel using data from 474 respondents. PLS‐SEM revealed that negative anchors related to space travel influence negative attitude while the objectification of SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Tesla influence the positive attitudes. Organizations with an interest in space tourism need to use scientific knowledge and scientists, documentary broadcasts, and serious news media for broadening their appeal, as more tangible scientific messages derive the higher response and impact.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.