Suborbital vehicle development updates from Space Access ’12

On Friday three of the companies actively developing commercial suborbital vehicles—Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, and XCOR Aerospace—gave presentations about their companies’ vehicle development work at the Space Access ’12 conference in Phoenix. Since it’s only been a month and a half since these companies, plus Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic (who are not presenting at Space Access) talked about their work at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC), their updates were more in the way of incremental progress than major milestones.

Ben Brockert of Armadillo Aerospace said that work is continuing on their next suborbital rocket, called STIG-B. (Unlike past years, when a sizable Armadillo contingent attended Space Access, the rest of the company is back at Texas, hard at work on the rocket.) STIG-B will be a larger version of the STIG-A rocket that Armadillo launched from Spaceport America in New Mexico in December and January, on the latter flight reaching an altitude of about 95 kilometers, although its recovery system failed.

At NSRC Armadillo’s Neil Milburn said they wanted to launch STIG-B as soon as May, but at Space Access Brockert only said that they “want to fly this in the next few months.” One sticking point may not be technical but, instead, regulatory. The STIG-A launches took place under the so-called “amateur exemption” to FAA’s licensing rules for launches. STIG-B will be too big to fit under that rule. In addition, Brockert said that NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which is providing payloads for those upcoming launches, doesn’t want those launches to take place under the exemption in any case. One option would be to get a experimental launch permit from the FAA, but launches performed under a permit cannot be done for hire, including for NASA. Instead, Armadillo is applying for a full-fledged launch license from the FAA. “That’s what Neil has been spending all of his time on recently,” Brockert said, with the hope that FAA doesn’t take the full 180-day waiting period allowed under law to review the application and award the license.

Dave Masten of Masten Space updated attendees on his company’s progress with its Xaero suborbital vehicle and other projects. Xaero, a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle, has performed a couple of free flights and a large number of tethered tests, the latter to (successfully) work out issues with the vehicle during landing. A second Xaero, called Xaero B, will fly high altitude missions, up to about 30 kilometers, in the near future. “I’m not going to promise any dates, but our internal targets are probably within a few months,” he said of those flights. Masten is also working on a follow-on vehicle, Xogdor, for suborbital flights; he said they have all the parts for it under development with plans to fly it by the end of this year, but are holding off on assembling it until the upcoming Xaero flights.

Masten has also been working on a project called Xeus that would convert a Centaur upper stage into a lander that could put up to 14 tons on the lunar surface. United Launch Alliance has provided Masten with a Centaur stage for terrestrial testing. Masten said that “ideally” he’d like the Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT) at NASA to fund some development of Xeus so it could fly on the first Space Launch System (SLS) demonstration launch in 2017, perhaps carrying a Discovery-class science payload for NASA. That, he admitted, would require cooperation among OCT and NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, “so it’s not going to happen, but it wold be great if it did.”

Mark Street of XCOR Aerospace gave an update on work on the first, or Mark 1, Lynx prototype. Pieces of that first Lynx are coming together in the company’s Mojave, California, facility, including a large fuselage section. The vehicle’s design, in particular the nose, fuselage, and tails, has been tweaked somewhat since the design was unveiled, thanks to an extensive series of wind tunnel tests to refine the spaceplane’s flight characteristics. “The aerodynamic design of Lynx has been a reflection of the need to balance the subsonic flying qualities of the airplane and the supersonic flying qualities of the airplane,” he said.

That work appears to be about done: he said a wind tunnel test in late March led to a couple of minor tweaks in the Lynx design that should “completely resolve” the remaining yaw and roll issues with the vehicle. “We think with those tweaks we have a configuration that’s ready to go,” Street said, with a final wind tunnel test in the next couple months to verify that those changes are sufficient. XCOR is still aiming to have a first, low-level test flight—“air under the gear”—by the end of this year, he said, as part of a gradual, incremental flight test program.

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