Suborbital company announcements and other developments at NSRC

A big focus on Monday’s sessions of the 2012 Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Palo Alto, California, was on the progress that five companies—Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems, Virgin Galactic, and XCOR Aerospace—are making on the vehicles that can carry the research payloads, and perhaps even the researchers themselves, in the near future. These companies all offered some updates on the technical and other developments that are bringing them ever closer to flight.

XCOR Aerospace made perhaps the biggest splash on Monday, although it was not directly related to any specific vehicle development milestones. The company announced it closed a new round of financing, raising $5 million that will take the company though the development of the Mark 1 version of its Lynx suborbital vehicle. Those joining the round include Esther Dyson, Pete Ricketts (former chief operating office (COO) of Ameritrade), and “several top Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and former venture capitalists”, according to the company’s release.

The company separately announced that it had lined up three more payload integrators for the Lynx vehicle. One of XCOR’s customers, the Southwest Research Institute, said it had moved up two of the six Lynx flights it previously bought from XCOR from the commercial operators phase to the test phase in order to get an early opportunity to perform suborbital research. As for the Lynx itself, XCOR COO Andrew Nelson said work on the Mark 1 is proceeding well, with the company recently taking possession of fuselage components for the suborbital spaceplane. “Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll have a little air under the wheels,” that is, performing the initial test flights of the Lynx, he said.

Virgin Galactic did not say much about the status of SpaceShipTwo development, with company officials only offering that they hopes to start rocket-powered test flights of SpaceShipTwo “later this year” without being more specific. Once that happens, though, said Virgin Galactic vice president Will Pomerantz, “we follow pretty quickly from first powered flight to first flight to space, and then it’s not terribly long until we have our first commercial flight to space.” He also said that the company now has almost 500 customers signed up.

Virgin did announce, though, that it has picked NanoRacks to supply the experiment racks that will be used to fly research payloads on SpaceShipTwo. NanoRacks is best known as the company that provides experiment access to the ISS through a system based on the existing CubeSat standard. Each research flight, said Pomerantz, will be able to carry up to 590 kilograms of experiments, along with a Virgin Galactic payload specialist to operate the experiments.

Armadillo Aerospace provided an update on its STIG rocket, the latest of which, STIG-A III, launched from Spaceport America a month ago. Neil Milburn said the rocket flew to an altitude of no less than 82 kilometers (Armadillo’s summary notes that the best fit to the data it obtained is for a peak altitude of 94.5 kilometers), but a problem with the recovery system caused it to crash-land, destroying the rocket.

Instead of building another STIG-A rocket, Milburn said, Armadillo is now working on a new version, STIG-B, with a wider diameter (about 50 centimeters), cold gas thrusters in place of roll vanes for attitude control, and other upgrades. This version will have a “substantial payload capacity”, he said, capable of carrying a 10-kilogram payload as high as 140 kilometers and providing up to four minutes of microgravity. The STIG-B could be ready for its first flight as soon as May. “That’s a hell of a push,” he said. “That’s the kind of operational pace we have at Armadillo.”

STIG is designed to test technology that Armadillo plans to use on its crewed vehicle it is developing with Space Adventures. The vehicle, code-named Hyperion, will be able to carry two people up to 100 kilometers. “We should be making some announcements later this year about just when we should see the first boilerplate flights of Hyperion,” he said.

Masten Space Systems has recently carried out a series of tests of its Xaero vehicle, including this test flight to 61 meters altitude a week and a half ago. Those flights came after overcoming some difficulties once they installed the aeroshell on the vehicle (past Masten vehicles had no aeroshell), creating some unanticipated aerodynamic effects. “Every time we got 18 inches off the ground our IMU [inertial measurement unit] would get confused and think we were sinking, and we would take off again,” said Masten CEO Joel Scotkin. They eventually decided “to clobber it over the head with software” that has solved the problem, he said.

Scotkin said they plan to fly Xaero to 5-6 kilometers “in really the very near future” as part of its NASA Flight Opportunities award. The company is also working on upgraded vehicles, including the Xaero B and Xaero 20, which will fly by the third quarter of this year to altitudes of 20-30 kilometers. A separate vehicle, Xogdor, will be ready by the end of the year for flights to 100 kilometers.

Blue Origin is recovering from the loss of its suborbital vehicle in a test flight last August, an event that, while unfortunate, was not necessarily unexpected. “We always expected to lose it during flight testing,” said Brett Alexander, who joined Blue Origin last year as director of business development and strategy. “It was not meant to be the operational vehicle. We are building the next vehicle now.”

Alexander said that they’ve built a “1.1 version” of the crew capsule that will be used for a pad test of the pusher escape motor this summer as part of its Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) second-round award from NASA. This version of the capsule has no windows, but Alexander said a later iteration for operational flights will include them.

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