martes, 1 de marzo de 2011

Space Tourism May Mean One Giant Leap for Researchers

Space Tourism May Mean One Giant Leap for Researchers

Sitting in the next seat could be a scientist working on a research experiment.

Science, perhaps even more than tourism, could turn out to be big business for Virgin and other companies that are aiming to provide short rides above the 62-mile altitude that marks the official entry into outer space, eventually on a daily basis.

A $200,000 ticket is prohibitively expensive except for a small slice of the wealthy, but compared with the millions of dollars that government agencies like NASA typically spend to get experiments into space, “it’s revolutionary,” said S. Alan Stern, an associate vice president of the Southwest Research Institute’s space sciences and engineering division in Boulder, Colo.

He is a spirited evangelist for the science possibilities of what is known in aerospace circles as suborbital travel. Just as important as the lower cost, scientists will be able to get their experiments to space more quickly and more often, Dr. Stern said. “We’re really at the edge of something transformational,” he added.

Dr. Stern’s institute announced Monday that it has signed a contract and paid the deposit to send two of its scientists up in Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle. Southwest also intends to buy six more seats — $1.6 million in tickets over all.

That follows an announcement on Thursday that Southwest is buying six seats from another suborbital company, XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif., which has been charging $95,000 a seat for tourists. XCOR’s Lynx space plane carries just two people — the pilot and the paying passenger — so each flight will carry an experiment and an institute scientist.

“We have built, on our own dime, three payloads,” Dr. Stern said. “We’re buying tickets, before there is a government program from suborbital providers, for our own people to fly with those experiments.”

One of the Southwest experiments will look at how loose soil and rocks like those that cover asteroids behave. Another will fly an ultraviolet telescope that flew on the space shuttle Discovery in 1997. The third is a biomedical harness to measure heartbeat, blood pressure and other physical parameters of the scientist during flight.

When the experiments will get to space has not been set. Neither company has yet announced when commercial flights will begin, but eventually SpaceShipTwo could fly once or twice a day, and the Lynx is designed for up to four flights a day.

Virgin has already performed unpowered glide tests for the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo at Spaceport America in New Mexico and will begin powered ones soon. XCOR may begin flight tests of the Lynx later this year.

Two other companies — Blue Origin, created by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, and Armadillo Aerospace — are also developing spacecraft for the tourist business. Another company, Masten Space Systems Inc., is developing a suborbital vehicle that will carry only payloads, not people.

Even if only some of these companies succeed, the prospect is that in a few years, hundreds of suborbital flights could be taking off every year. Dr. Stern predicted that even though a single flight would offer only a few minutes of weightlessness, the cumulative time of the suborbital experiments could quickly overtake that of the International Space Station, which has been in orbit for more than a decade.

NASA will be flying automated scientific payloads on Masten and Armadillo rockets this year, and the agency will provide more opportunities for researchers in future years, although it has not offered to buy seats for people to accompany their experiments. For scientists, that could finally provide them ready access to space.

“It’s almost impossible to get research on the space station at the moment,” said Mark Shelhamer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University medical school who would like to study people’s balance and other motor sensory abilities before and after suborbital flights.

On Earth, gravity is the dominant force, and many common processes — the way that water boils, for instance, and that a flame burns — behave much differently without it. But many of the theories describing how physics should work in weightlessness have not been tested in detail.  Sitting in the next seat could be a scientist working on a research experiment.

Science, perhaps even more than tourism, could turn out to be big business for Virgin and other companies that are aiming to provide short rides above the 62-mile altitude that marks the official entry into outer space, eventually on a daily basis.

A $200,000 ticket is prohibitively expensive except for a small slice of the wealthy, but compared with the millions of dollars that government agencies like NASA typically spend to get experiments into space, “it’s revolutionary,” said S. Alan Stern, an associate vice president of the Southwest Research Institute’s space sciences and engineering division in Boulder, Colo.

He is a spirited evangelist for the science possibilities of what is known in aerospace circles as suborbital travel. Just as important as the lower cost, scientists will be able to get their experiments to space more quickly and more often, Dr. Stern said.

“We’re really at the edge of something transformational,” he added.

Dr. Stern’s institute announced Monday that it has signed a contract and paid the deposit to send two of its scientists up in Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle. Southwest also intends to buy six more seats — $1.6 million in tickets over all.

That follows an announcement on Thursday that Southwest is buying six seats from another suborbital company, XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif., which has been charging $95,000 a seat for tourists. XCOR’s Lynx space plane carries just two people — the pilot and the paying passenger — so each flight will carry an experiment and an institute scientist.

“We have built, on our own dime, three payloads,” Dr. Stern said. “We’re buying tickets, before there is a government program from suborbital providers, for our own people to fly with those experiments.”

One of the Southwest experiments will look at how loose soil and rocks like those that cover asteroids behave. Another will fly an ultraviolet telescope that flew on the space shuttle Discovery in 1997. The third is a biomedical harness to measure heartbeat, blood pressure and other physical parameters of the scientist during flight.

When the experiments will get to space has not been set. Neither company has yet announced when commercial flights will begin, but eventually SpaceShipTwo could fly once or twice a day, and the Lynx is designed for up to four flights a day.

Virgin has already performed unpowered glide tests for the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo at Spaceport America in New Mexico and will begin powered ones soon. XCOR may begin flight tests of the Lynx later this year.

Two other companies — Blue Origin, created by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, and Armadillo Aerospace — are also developing spacecraft for the tourist business. Another company, Masten Space Systems Inc., is developing a suborbital vehicle that will carry only payloads, not people.

Even if only some of these companies succeed, the prospect is that in a few years, hundreds of suborbital flights could be taking off every year. Dr. Stern predicted that even though a single flight would offer only a few minutes of weightlessness, the cumulative time of the suborbital experiments could quickly overtake that of the International Space Station, which has been in orbit for more than a decade.

NASA will be flying automated scientific payloads on Masten and Armadillo rockets this year, and the agency will provide more opportunities for researchers in future years, although it has not offered to buy seats for people to accompany their experiments.

For scientists, that could finally provide them ready access to space. “It’s almost impossible to get research on the space station at the moment,” said Mark Shelhamer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University medical school who would like to study people’s balance and other motor sensory abilities before and after suborbital flights.

On Earth, gravity is the dominant force, and many common processes — the way that water boils, for instance, and that a flame burns — behave much differently without it. But many of the theories describing how physics should work in weightlessness have not been tested in detail.