Suborbital vehicle development updates

In yesterday’s sessions at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Boulder, Colorado, four major developers of suborbital vehicles presented updates on their efforts. Here’s a summary of what they revealed:

Virgin Galactic: Stephen Attenborough provided considerable details about their plans to flight test SpaceShipTwo (SS2). Ground testing will continue until the end of this quarter, he said. The first captive-carry flight, with WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrying SS2 aloft but not releasing it, should take place by the end of this quarter. The second quarter of 2010 will be for captive-carry tests flights. The first drop test will be some time in the third quarter. That initial drop test, he said, “will be a pretty interesting moment for all of us on the ground, and a pretty interesting moment for the pilot as well.”

Attenborough said he hoped first powered test flight of SS2 would take place by the end of this year. There would be “a lot” of powered test flights in 2011, he said. His “best case” scenario for beginning commercial operations would be the end of 2011 or the beginning of 2012, adding it would be entirely depending on the progress made during the test flights. “We can’t cut corners” on the test program, he noted.

XCOR Aerospace: Jeff Greason noted that development of the prototype Lynx Mark 1 was underway, which will be followed “as quickly as possible” (9-18 months, according to his slides) by the more capable Mark 2. Engine development, normally a limiting factor in the development of a launch system, isn’t a concern. “The engines are ahead of the airframe,” he said. The first test flights of the Mk 1 prototype are planned for the first half of next year.

Masten Space Systems: Fresh off its wins in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge last fall, Masten is pressing ahead with plans for a couple of different vehicles in the coming year, said Michael Mealling. First up, in the next couple of months, will be “Xoie v2.0″, an updated version of the XA-0.1E that won first place in Level Two of the LLC, now equipped with an aeroshell and the ability to do an engine relight; it will be able to fly up to about 36 kilometers. XA-0.1G, or “Xogdor”, will be built by October or November, will pick up where Xoie left off, flying eventually up to 100 kilometers using a new 3000-lbf engine under development. By 2011 Masten plans to fly commercial missions, and is even looking at the possibility of getting into the nanosat launch market through the use of an expendable second stage.

Blue Origin: Gary Lai didn’t make any great new revelations about the secretive company’s plans in a presentation, which he said was the first time a Blue Origin employee had presented any details at a conference. “If we’re famous for anything it’s famous for keeping quiet,” he said. The reason for that, he said, “is that we have a culture within the company to talk publicly only about results, and not about plans,” an approach similar to Burt Rutan.

While he didn’t provide much in the way of specifics, and no hints about schedule, he did reveal a few things. He briefly discussed Goddard, the gumdrop-shaped prototype of the New Shepard propulsion module that the company first flew in November 2006. “One of the main reasons for flying Goddard was to learn how to take a vertical-landing vehicle that uses the same propellants that our operational vehicle uses and learn how to fly that and turn it around in a very rapid manner,” he said. “Most of our lessons learned were in the operational area.”

However, he cautioned about reading too much into Goddard. “That is not necessarily what the operational New Shepard vehicle looks like,” he said.

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