03 May 2012
EADS Astrium suborbital space plane will take passengers 62 miles above the Earth and back. (Credit: EADS Astrium)

EADS Astrium plans on offering seats for 200,000 Euros for a trip to the edge of space at 62 miles (100 kilometers) complete with several minutes of weightlessness in a suborbital flight.  All through that of a luxury rocket plane that resembles a business jet.  Meanwhile the European Space Agency (ESA) has been encouraging the development of similar suborbital concept vehicles that would work for vital space laboratory experiments.  They coined the new concept vehicle the Vinci space plane.

EADS Astrium Space Tourist Vehicle

Astrium's business jet sized space plane dubbed Vinci will take off and land like a conventional airplane using its jet engines.  At about 12 km the rocket engine will be ignited and in 80 seconds the craft will climb to 60km in altitude.  The propulsion system is shut down as the planes inertia carries it to 100km at which point passengers will hover weightlessly for several minutes with an awe inspiring view of Earth. 

(Credit: EADS Astrium)
(Credit: EADS Astrium)

During decent the craft will slow and the jet engines are restarted for normal landing.  The trip will last 2 hours.

The Astrium concept vehicle would use a methane and liquid oxygen rocket engine.  It also has twin turbine engines to go with the rocket engines.  This project was announced in 2007 and recently in 2011 Astrium began moving forward by working with the Singapore government on the project.

Vinci the "Vision Vehicle" and Concept 2,3

While the Astrium is still in development, the ESA has been working on a generic space plane with similar capabilities called Vinci.

The Vinci rocket engine that would propel the spacecraft is currently being developed for the upper stage of the European Ariane 5 rocket.

Depiction of the Vinci Suborbital space plane's structure and cryogenic fuel and oxidizer tanks. (Credit: ESA)

The spacecraft would be designed to carry eight people, six passengers and two for the crew.

The proposal for this craft is part of a European Space Agency project directed at supporting commercial suborbital spaceflight efforts.  Funding for such new projects could be approved this November at the next meeting of the ESA member states' space ministers.  The ministers meet every three years to decide on project funding.

Such a spacecraft as Vinci is deemed a "vision vehicle" because it would not be built but be a generic template that could be applied to any single stage to suborbital space plane.

According the ESA study, Vinci would have no jet turbines only the Vinci rocket engine that uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and by design is capable of restarting as many as five times.

Its fuselage would be two carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic shells separated by a Nomex honeycomb core and use landing gear like a typical aircraft.

Vinci is called a "Cryogenic Sub-orbital Spacecraft."

Vinci Concept 2 as it is called, could have a payload carrier on its back from which microsatellites could be launched into low-Earth orbit.  This becomes possible due to the Concept 2's two canted tails instead of a single vertical tail fin.

Concept 2 would be able to reach 66.8 miles (107.65 km) and a peak speed of Mach 3.5 (3 times the speed of sound).  The maximum takeoff weight would be 30,625 pounds (13,920 kg), where 16,534 pounds (7,515 kg) would be fuel.

Concept 1 had no canard and had a conventional tail with a single vertical fin and horizontal stabilizer while Concept 3 had a canard but had winglets instead of a vertical tail and horizontal stabilizer.

Depiction of the various concept ideas for the European Vinci suborbital space plane. Left to right: Concept 1, Concept 2, Concept 3. (Credit: ESA)

The ESA report also says that for European Aviation Safety Agency certification regulation has the potential to add weight to the design and that the cryogenic fuel and oxidizer tanks might require significant research and development.  The space plane would need thermal protection on its leading edges and adjacent to the Vinci rocket around the tail and other sections.  If the U.S. supplies technology preparations will be made to meet any U.S. export law requirements.

Using Space Planes as Laboratories

Already there is growing interest by NASA to use private suborbital craft for technology experiments as part of the agency's Flight Opportunities Program.

Such proposals are in the works that can fly on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, an eight person private passenger spacecraft for suborbital flight, which is currently in flight testing, as well as the vertical takeoff and landing Xaero rocket from Masten Space Systems.  A two person Lynx space plane is being developed by XCOR Aerospace according to NASA as well.

Later this year Virgin Galactic is expected to conduct the first in-flight rocket engine tests and Xaero is expected to start flying.  However, the ESA can't use these spacecraft because of internal rules that bar the European agency from funding foreign suborbital vehicles operating in foreign countries.

In 2010, ESA conducted a survey of European suborbital spaceflight providers.  There was no appropriate choice of services that the ESA could use for its laboratories, hence they began considering generic technologies to foster the development of the European suborbital vehicle development.

The ESA is required to fund pre-competitive technologies.  Using a methane/liquid oxygen rocket can not be done because it is already the technology in development by EADS Astrium.

The Tech-Stew Take Home

With the European interest in suborbital spaceflight, particularly in the private sector, this will prove a benefit to the private space industry, providing a spark to motivate companies to push their technologies forward.  This type of program, suborbital space flights, should provide a good way for science (and tourism) to get done for less than what would normally be expected.  The next logical evolutionary step, once we see large scale success in suborbital flights will be that of private innovations that lead towards more technologically advanced orbital flights.  This for both tourism and science.  On the science side we are already seeing companies like SpaceX making orbital contributions to NASA in particular.  It is an exciting time in the space era, akin to that of the beginning of space flight itself, as multitudes of companies come forward to help push humanity into the final frontier.

Source:  Wikipedia, Msnbc.com

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