Over the following fortnight, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson will take off into house, as a result of they will, on spaceships designed by their respective firms.
It’s a giant second for the personal house trade. However the query involves thoughts: who has the smarter plan?
A billionaire’s house race
On Could 5 Blue Origin, owned by former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, introduced it could fly its first crew of astronauts into house on July 20 — the Apollo 11 Moon touchdown’s 52nd anniversary.
After 15 profitable check flights, this would be the first crewed flight for Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship. One seat can be occupied by an undisclosed winner of a charity public sale, who reportedly paid US$28 million for the privilege. Two extra seats can be taken up by Bezos and his brother Mark.
A fourth seat will go to Wally Funk. The 82-year-old pilot was a promising candidate within the Sixties Mercury 13 ladies’s astronaut coaching programme, however wasn’t in a position to go to house due to her gender.
It wasn’t lengthy after Bezos introduced his plans that Sir Richard Branson additionally joined in, setting a launch date of July 11 — 9 days earlier than Bezos’s departure.
Branson will journey as a part of a six particular person crew on Virgin Galactic spaceplane VSS Unity. It will likely be the fourth time the VSS Unity, the precise SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, has been flown to house, however the first with a full crew.
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Each flights can be quick, and based mostly on completely different definitions of the place “house” begins.
Bezos’s Blue Origin has chosen to outline this because the internationally recognised Kármán line at 100 kilometres altitude. The height of the New Shepard’s trajectory can be simply previous this restrict.
In the meantime, Virgin Galactic has chosen the US Air Drive’s definition of house at about 80km altitude. Their SpaceShipTwo typically reaches a peak altitude of round 90km throughout flight.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard
Blue Origin’s New Shepard is a completely autonomous rocket (with no pilots) which takes off nearly totally vertically from its launch website in distant West Texas.
It’s powered by a BE-3 liquid-fuelled rocket motor, which burns for round two and a half minutes till the spacecraft reaches 55km of altitude, at a velocity of 900 metres per second. With its nearly vertical trajectory, that is sufficient altitude and momentum to succeed in house.
As soon as the rocket motor stops burning, the booster holding the rocket motor and gas separates from the crew capsule and returns to Earth.
The entire flight will solely final ten minutes, with astronauts experiencing weightlessness close to the height altitude, earlier than their capsule re-enters the environment and drifts again all the way down to Earth. Parachutes will assist with deceleration.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane can be carried as much as 15km altitude by a provider plane, the WhiteKnightTwo. At this level it should launch itself into house, beginning above the thick decrease environment.
SpaceShipTwo will detach from WhiteKnightTwo and begin its hybrid rocket motor engine which burns for a minute, giving the spaceplane sufficient momentum to succeed in its 90km peak altitude.
Much like the New Shepard, passengers will expertise a number of minutes of weightlessness earlier than re-entering the environment.
On account of its low velocity upon re-entry, SpaceShipTwo will carry out a “feathered re-entry”, the place it should rotate its wings up and use them to maintain secure, like a shuttlecock, because it falls all the way down to 15km altitude.
It’ll then as soon as once more turn out to be a spaceplane and glide again to the bottom below the management of pilots, prepared for re-use.
A rocket versus a spaceplane
There are a number of variations and similarities within the firms’ approaches.
Each may have quick flights, permitting them to utilize suborbital launch trajectories. This implies they’ll obtain the suitable altitude to succeed in house, however received’t go into orbit. This method requires a lot much less gas than an orbital flight.
Suborbital trajectories additionally make re-entry considerably slower, so the heavy warmth shielding that may be required when coming back from orbit received’t be wanted. Additionally, each goal to re-use their spaceships to decrease the prices of operation over time.
Past that, nevertheless, their approaches are fairly completely different.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard is basically a big “sounding rocket” These are small analysis rockets which carry out suborbital hops so science experiments will be carried out throughout temporary journeys to house.
It additionally makes use of a liquid rocket motor which, whereas more durable to design, is usually safer since it may be throttled throughout operation (and even shut off if required).
New Shepard, which has carried out 15 profitable uncrewed check flights, is general a easy spacecraft. This can seemingly make it cheaper and safer in the long term.
In distinction, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is way more superior. It’s launched mid-air and is rocket-powered — an method that hasn’t been correctly explored since NASA and the US Air Drive’s X-15 program within the Sixties.
For a profitable flight, SpaceShipTwo should be launched whereas being carried by a provider plane, should ignite its rocket motor within the air, stow its wings for re-entry after which un-stow them once more to glide house. This sophisticated process has already come unstuck a number of occasions.
A latest SpaceShipTwo flight was aborted on account of a pc malfunction after its rocket motor ignited. It landed safely however didn’t attain house.
And in 2014, the unintentional activation of the feathered re-entry system throughout ascent to house led to destruction of the primary SpaceShipTwo mannequin, the VSS Enterprise, tragically killing the co-pilot.
Range versus simplicity
Whereas the prices of a seat on each spaceships can be eye watering, solely Virgin Atlantic have introduced an official price ticket: US$250,000 per seat on a SpaceShipTwo flight. It’s anticipated Blue Origin’s New Shepard can be priced equally.
The simplicity of Blue Origin’s system means it should most likely be higher geared up to scale back prices over time. However simplicity can also be its downfall. In the meantime, SpaceShipTwo is a extra advanced spacecraft with pilots. This might show extra enticing to clients.
Chris James doesn’t work for, seek the advice of, personal shares in or obtain funding from any firm or organisation that may profit from this text, and has disclosed no related affiliations past their educational appointment.