Space is not just the final frontier. It’s the citizen-science frontier. Thanks to rapid advances in technology, it’s now possible for citizen scientists to build high-quality space-science hardware with off-the-shelf components.

Interest in citizen science and participatory exploration has exploded in recent years. New technologies are making it easier for private citizens  to become involved in the scientific process. More and more, the professional scientific community is recognizing the importance of contributions made by dedicated amateurs. Citizen scientists are discovering exoplanets and dinosaurs, monitoring climate and endangered species, and helping to map the human genome.

The development of low-cost reusable suborbital spacecraft will be the next great enabler, allowing citizens to participate in space exploration and space science.

Citizens in Space, a project of the United States Rocket Academy, is riding this new wave of citizen science citizen space exploration.

XCOR Lynx with Atsa Suborbital Observatory space telescope

For the first phase of our project, we have acquired an initial contract for 10 suborbital spaceflights with one of the new space transportation companies — XCOR Aerospace. This represents, to the best of our knowledge, the largest single bulk purchase of suborbital flights to date. We will be making payload space on these flights available to citizen scientists and to professional researchers who play by our open-source rules. We expect to fly up to 100 small experiments in our initial flight campaign. For information on submitting payloads, see our Call for Experiments.

Citizens in Space will also select and train 10 citizen astronauts to fly as payload operators. We have three astronaut candidates already in training. We’ll be recruiting seven more over the next 12 to 24 months.

For more information on our program, click here.

Citizens in Space has announced the payload manifest for its first flight on the XCOR Aerospace Lynx spacecraft.

The experiments will be carried aboard the Lynx Cub Payload Carrier, an open-source payload carrier developed for the Lynx spacecraft by Citizens in Space. Experiments will be controlled in flight by a Citizens in Space science-mission-specialist astronaut.

The experiments announced today cover a wide range of subjects from microgravity crystallization to plant growth, antimicrobial materials for space habitats, and the interaction of water with lunar surface materials. The experimenters are equally diverse.

“Mission One includes citizen scientists working at every level, from high school to professional research labs,” said Dr. Justin Karl, Chief Payloads Officer for Citizens in Space.

The mission announced today is one of ten flights purchased by Citizens in Space. “Citizens in Space is making these flight opportunities available at no cost to citizen scientists,” Dr. Karl said. “In return, citizen scientists pledge to make their experiment designs and data openly available to the entire community. Our goal is to create a huge catalog of flight-proven experiments that future researchers can draw from.

“As science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein once said, ‘You can’t pay it back. You have to pay it forward.’”

The experiments announced today are:

  • Angelicvm Aerospace Foundation of Santiago, Chile. Crystallization Rates in Microgravity.
  • Bishop Planetarium at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Florida. Microgravity Water Electrolysis Optimization.
  • CD-SEAS of Honolulu, Hawaii. Effectiveness of Anti-Microbial Coatings in Microgravity Conditions.
  • Florida International University of Miami, Florida. Regolith Compression Mechanics in Reduced- and Micro-Gravity.
  • Flightsafety Makers of Columbus, Ohio. Characterization of Local Inertial Loading and Comparison with Avionics Data.
  • Syncleus of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Realtime Payload Conditions Monitoring.
  • NewSpace Farm LLC of Seattle, Washington. Microgravity Botany Pod Hardware Evaluation.
  • The Pinkowski Group of Montrose, Pennsylvania. Concentration Gradient Equalization Rates.
  • Terran Sciences Group of Orlando, Florida. Inter-Payload Heat Transfer Characterization.
  • Texas Southern University of Houston, Texas. Non-Fick Diffusion in Microgravity.
  • Students for the Exploration and Development of Space at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Hydrophobic Coating Effectiveness for Space Applications.
  • University High School of Orlando, Florida. Investigation of Regolith Hydration in Zero Gravity.

Citizens in Space is continuing its call for experiments. Questions and letters of intent can be submitted to Dr. Justin Karl by emailing

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on August 13th, 2015 , Citizens in Space

Citizens in Space/TSG/SEDS balloon payload

Citizens in Space announces the successful completion of a high-altitude balloon flight, the first in a series of missions to test hardware designed to fly on the Lynx spacecraft from XCOR Aerospace.

The helium balloon, which reached an altitude of 25 kilometers (82,000 feet), was launched by a team from the University of Central Florida’s Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. Soon after launch, shifting winds carried the balloon west, rather than east, out over the Gulf of Mexico. The unexpected turn led to a scramble by UCF-SEDS students to locate the balloon, which was lost at sea for several days.

The balloon carried components from the Lynx Cub Payload Developer’s Kit, an open-source science kit available through Citizens in Space and Terran Sciences Group.

“The main goal on this flight was to test Dev Kit components by exposing them to extreme conditions,” said Dr. Justin Karl, Chief Payloads Officer for Citizens in Space. “Post-flight analysis by UCF-SEDS shows that components functioned normally throughout the flight at temperatures down to -50°C (-60°F) and atmospheric pressure below 1% of sea level. At the end, the payload survived a 17.5g water impact and an unexpected dip in salt water. These are far more extreme than the conditions we will experience during actual spaceflights on the XCOR Lynx, where payloads will ride comfortably inside the crew cabin and be subjected to only about 4g of acceleration.”

The flight also served as a launch-and-recovery test for the next Citizens in Space balloon mission, which will carry an ultra-high-definition video camera developed for the Lynx spacecraft.

“High-altitude balloons are a dime a dozen,” said Joseph Ricci, director of projects for UCF-SEDS, “Our mission was part of a larger program which will qualify hardware for use in future spaceflights.”

“This test gives us great confidence in the reliability of our Dev Kit components,” Dr. Karl said. “These components will be useful to groups at all levels, from middle-school classes to professional researchers, who want to fly experiments on the Lynx spacecraft. Anyone who’s interested in flying an experiment in space should visit or for more information on our Dev Kit components and no-cost flight opportunities.”

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on August 6th, 2015 , Citizens in Space, High-altitude Balloons

Citizens in Space will present papers at two small-satellite conferences this month.

On Thursday, 23 April 2015, Citizens in Space project manager Edward Wright will address the 12th Annual CubeSat Developers’s Workshop on the topic of “The Lynx Cub Payload Carrier and Suborbital Flight Opportunities for Small Payloads on the XCOR Lynx Spacecraft.”

The talk will take place during the Launch Capabilities, Testing, and Simulation session on Thursday afternoon.

On Monday, 27 April 2015, Wright will address 2015 Interplanetary Small Satellite Conference on the topic of “Testing Interplanetary CubeSat Payloads Using Reusable Suborbital Spacecraft.” The talk will take place during the Propulsion Systems and Launch session.

In addition, Citizens in Space will have an exhibit table at both events, with the Lynx Cub Payload Carrier and other flight hardware on display.

“The Lynx Cub Payload Carrier is a versatile system that installs in the cabin of the Lynx spacecraft, behind the pilot’s seat,” Wright said. “It allows small experiments to be carried as secondary payloads on any Lynx flight. The Lynx Cub Carrier can be installed and removed quickly for frequent, low-cost flight opportunities.

“The Lynx Cub Carrier is an ideal platform for small materials-processing, fluid-physics, life-science, and engineering experiments. University teaching and research, K-12 education, citizen science, government and industrial R&D can all benefit from the convenient simple interfaces, rapid integration, and affordability of the Lynx Cub experiments.”

The Lynx Cub Carrier provides physical and electrical accommodations for up to 15 small experiments based on the CubeSat form factor. The CubeSat form factor is an international standard commonly used in small satellites. “The use of the CubeSat form factor allows satellite developers to test their payloads and other hardware on suborbital flights at very low cost, with minimal modifications,” Wright said. “Testing hardware on a reusable suborbital vehicle such as the XCOR Lynx will help developers work out bugs in advance, providing greater mission assurance for satellite launches where there is no do-over.”

Lynx Cub Payload Carrier

The XCOR Lynx is a reusable, piloted suborbital spacecraft currently under construction by XCOR Aerospace in Mojave, California. XCOR expects the Lynx to be ready for flight test some time later this year.

The 12th Annual CubeSat Developer’s Workshop takes place at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo on 22-24 April. More information is available at

The 2015 Interplanetary Small Satellite Conference takes place at Santa Clara University on 27-28 April. Full details can be found at

1 Comment, Written by Astro1 on April 16th, 2015 , Citizens in Space

Boeing CST-100 mockup

Boeing will name its first commercial astronaut this summer, according to an article in Space News.

The Boeing astronaut will be one of two persons to fly the CST-100 capsule on its first crewed test flight in 2017. The other crew member will be a NASA astronaut. Boeing also plans to unveil the CST-100 spacesuit, being developed by David Clark Company, at the same time.

2 Comments, Written by Astro1 on April 15th, 2015 , Boeing

United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket logo

At a press conference on Monday, United Launch Alliance CEO Tony Bruno unveiled long-awaited plans for the company’s next-generation launch system.

The new launcher, designed to replace the Boeing Delta and Lockheed-Martin Atlas rocket families, is currently named Vulcan. (Although, Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace has protested ULA’s use of the name, a matter which may be resolved in court.)

ULA says the Vulcan rocket will cut launch costs in half through what the company calls “smart reusability.” Rather than attempting to recover the entire first stage, like their competitor SpaceX, ULA will recover and reuse only the main engines, which represent 90% of the stage’s cost. To protect the engines during reentry, ULA will use an inflatable aerodynamic heat shield, which the company is developing under a NASA technology demonstration program. After reentry, the engine pod will deploy a parafoil for further deceleration. When the engine pod has slowed sufficiently, a heavy-lift helicopter will snag the parafoil and carry the engines to a waiting barge. (Air grab is a technique that has been used before, to recover film capsules from spy satellites, but it has never been used to recover engines.)

As expected, the Vulcan first stage will use two methane-fueled BE-4 engines from Blue Origin. The stage will also accommodate up to six solid-fueled strap-on motors. The combination of engines and solid-fueled motors will give Vulcan about 20% greater payload capability than the Atlas V.

If ULA meets its planned schedule (which the company admits is challenging), Vulcan will begin flying in 2019 using the existing Centaur upper stage powered by Pratt & Whitney RL-10 engines. Later, the Centaur will be replaced by an Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES), which will allow Vulcan to achieve the same payload capability as the Delta IV Heavy. For ACES propulsion, ULA is evaluating new engine designs, from Blue Origin and XCOR Aerospace, in addition to the RL-10.

ULA is also taking a novel approach to second-stage reusability. Rather than returning the stage to Earth for refurbishing, ULA is designing the stage so it can be restarted and refueled on orbit. This is possible due to an advanced integrated fluids system, which captures boil-off gasses from the liquid-oxygen and -hydrogen tanks. A small internal-combustion engine (about the size of a lawn-mower engine, but with much higher performance) will burn those boil-off gasses. The integrated fluids system will provide vehicle power, depressurize the propellant tanks, and provide attitude-control thrust. This system will allow the stage to operate on-orbit for weeks or months, rather than hours, with unlimited engine restarts. It will be able to maneuver between various orbits in the Earth-Moon system and return to a space station in Low Earth Orbit for refueling and reuse.

The internal-combustion engine for the integrated fluids system will incorporate race-car technology developed by the Roush Fenway Racing team.

United Launch Alliance Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES)

From a geopolitical and national-security viewpoint, the first stage is most important. It will eliminate ULA’s dependence on Russian rocket engines, which now power the Atlas V. But for space exploration and development, the advanced upper stage may prove far more interesting. ULA is arguably playing catch-up with the first stage, working to achieve low cost and reusability which SpaceX is already demonstrating in the Falcon 9. Recovering the main engines may save 90% of the vehicle cost, but it will also limit flight rate since the engines will have to be integrated into a new vehicle. (Based on comments made during the press conference, ULA seems to feel that 20 launches per year would be a large market.)

With the new upper stage, however, come new capabilities. The flexibility of the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage will enable a new mode of operations, which ULA calls distributed lift. The ability to reuse the upper stage as a space tug means that payloads do not need to fit on a single rocket, but can be assembled on orbit. That, in turn, means more efficient payload packaging and innovative architectures. ULA believes that distributed lift will enable concepts such as commercial habitats, propellant and water depots, asteroid mining, and lunar bases.

United Launch Alliance "distributed lift" concept

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on April 15th, 2015 , Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, XCOR Aerospace

XCOR Aerospace CEO Jay Gibson

XCOR Aerospace has announced the appointment of John H. (Jay) Gibson II as its new president and chief executive officer. Gibson succeeds Jeff Greason, who will continue with the company as chief technology officer and chairman of the board. The transition will allow Greason to dedicate more of his time to XCOR’s technical programs.

Gibson previously served as senior vice president for global mission support at Beechcraft, assistant secretary for financial management for the US Air Force, and deputy undersecretary for management reform at the Defense Department.

“There could not be a more opportune moment for XCOR to welcome Jay onboard,” Greason said. “This year is vital to XCOR’s plans. With the commencement of the Lynx flight test program on the horizon, Jay’s arrival allows the team to focus on getting Lynx in the air, moving forward on plans for our orbital vehicle, and transitioning XCOR to a more efficient and effective company. Jay delivers the depth and breadth of leadership and experience necessary to elevate XCOR to the next level.”

“I am excited to join this exceptional team at a critical time on the XCOR journey to making space accessible to everyone,” Gibson said. “The potential of commercially reusable rockets and vehicles in the payload and passenger markets is incredible. This is a rare opportunity to participate in the continuing development of the space industry. “


Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on March 16th, 2015 , XCOR Aerospace

NASA has released a new desktop application for asteroid detection, developed by NASA and Planetary Resources Inc. based on an algorithm from NASA’s Asteroid Data Hunter Challenge.

Amateur astronomers can use the application to analyze images. The application will tell the user whether a matching asteroid record exists and offer a way to report new findings to the Minor Planet Center, which confirms and archives new discoveries.

The desktop application, which is free, currently runs on Macintosh and Windows computers. A Linux version is coming soon. The application can be downloaded at

The improved algorithm has the potential to increase the number of new asteroid discoveries by amateur astronomers. Analysis of main-belt asteroid images using the algorithm showed a 15 percent increase in positive identifications.

The application was announced during a panel discussion at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas on Sunday.

Read the rest of this entry »

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on March 16th, 2015 , Astronomy, Planetary Defense, Planetary Resources

Southwest Research Institute scientists Dan Durda spoke about suborbital spaceflight at the TEDxBoulder conference.


XCOR Lynx spacecraft cockpit -- cutaway view

The Lynx Cub Payload Carrier will be on display this Friday (6 Feb 2015) during Innovation Day at Space Center Houston.

The Lynx Cub Carrier is a platform designed to carry multiple small experiments aboard the XCOR Lynx suborbital spacecraft. The Lynx Cub Carrier fits in a space behind the pilot’s seat (“Payload A” in the illustration above). It can accommodate up to 15 four-inch cubes or a combination of larger experiments up to 12 inches in length.

The Lynx Cub Payload Carrier was developed by the United States Rocket Academy with support from the State of Texas Aerospace Technology Research and Operations (ASTRO) Center (formerly the Space Engineering Research Center), the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Texas A&M University, and XCOR Aerospace. The first flight article, which will appear at Space Center Houston, was finished in 2014. It was previously displayed at events such as the National Space Symposium, International Space Development Conference, and the National Science Teachers Association conference.

The Lynx Cub Carrier will be on display in the Space Center Houston lobby from opening until 2:45 PM. Along with the Lynx Cub Payload Carrier, the display will feature related experiment hardware, a model of the XCOR Lynx spacecraft, and citizen astronaut candidates to answer questions. At 2:45 PM,  the Lynx Cub Carrier will move to Johnson Space Center’s Gilruth Conference Center for “Texas: the Space State,” a presentation by Citizens in Space at the Space Exploration Educators Conference. Other parts of the display will remain available in the lobby until 4:00 PM.

Other exhibitors at Innovation Day will include the Lunar and Planetary Institute, the Texas Space Grant Consortium, Microsoft, Nanoracks, and the NASA Commercial Crew Program.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on February 4th, 2015 , Citizens in Space, Events, XCOR Aerospace

cowboy, horse, and spaceship

Why are commercial space companies flocking to Texas? Representatives of Citizens in Space will speak on Texas, the Space State at the Space Exploration Educators Conference, which takes place this week at Space Center Houston. The talk, which is open to conference attendees, begins at 2:35 this Friday (6 February 2015).

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on February 3rd, 2015 , Citizens in Space, Events

citizen astronaut Anousheh Ansari aboard the International Space Station

Anousheh Ansari, one of the first citizen astronauts to visit the International Space Station, will speak in Houston this Friday (6 February 2015).

Her lecture, Dare to Dream: Travels of a Private Space Explorer, is part of the Houston Spaceport Frontier Lecture series

The talk will be held at Rice University in the McMurtry Auditorium, Duncan Hall at 4:00 PM. Admission is free. Event parking is $1 in the Greenbriar Lot.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on February 3rd, 2015 , Citizen Exploration, Events

The X-Prize Foundation has released its full-dome planetarium show, Back To the Moon for Good, as an online video.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on January 27th, 2015 , Lunar Science

SpaceX has released a new animation of its Falcon Heavy rocket, which is targeted for first flight later this year. Falcon Heavy will place payloads of up to 117,000 pounds into Low Earth Orbit, more than any American rocket since the Saturn V. More significantly, it will incorporate reusable boosters to reduce launch costs.

4 Comments, Written by Astro1 on January 27th, 2015 , SpaceX

President John F. Kennedy at Rice University

Let’s forget that throw-away line about going into space just “because it is hard.”

Kennedy himself did not believe that. He had other reasons (political reasons) for wanting to do Project Apollo.

Many things are hard. Building a life-size replica of the Eiffel Tower out of spaghetti would be hard, but you won’t find millions of people who want to do that. There are millions of people who want to go into space, however. Why?

There is no single answer to that question. There are as many reasons for going into space as there are people who want to go. We don’t need politicians to tell us why we want to go into space, any more than we need politicians to tell us why we want to go to Disneyland, Las Vegas, or Yellowstone National Park.

1 Comment, Written by Astro1 on January 12th, 2015 , Space Exploration (General), Space Policy and Management

This NASA film from 1962 shows an early version of the Apollo lunar mission concept. Some interesting minor differences from the final design include the mechanical arms used to reorient the lunar module and the ladder astronauts would use to climb down to the lunar surface.

One notable difference: the Apollo command module was intended to touchdown on land rather than at sea. Shock absorbers would have added considerable weight, however. The final design of the capsule could not safely touchdown on land; the impact would have severely injured the crew members. Broken backs were a likely outcome. As a result, one of the launch constraints on Apollo missions was wind direction. The wind had to be in a direction that would carry the command module out to sea, rather than back toward land, in the event of a launch abort.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on January 11th, 2015 , Space History

Public television station KQED in San Francisco produced this documentary on the emerging commercial space industry.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on December 30th, 2014 , Commercial Space (General)

SpaceX employees

According to The Waco Tribune, SpaceX will be adding 300 new jobs due to a $46-million expansion at its McGregor, Texas test facility.

That’s in addition to 500 jobs at the SpaceX launch site near Brownsville, Texas — a total of 800 new jobs.

To put that into perspective, NASA’s Johnson Space Center employs about 3,000 civil servants and 10,000 contractors. (Or perhaps 12,000  contractors– the Houston Chronicle and various NASA websites give conflicting figures.) But that number is down from 17,500 workers in 2007 and will remain relatively flat, based on projected NASA budgets. The SpaceX workforce, on the other hand, has the potential to grow rapidly as the company expands into commercial markets.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on December 30th, 2014 , SpaceX

Astrophobia is the fear of outer space. It can take many forms, from a fear of the stars to a fear of space travel.

One example of the later is actress Jessica Chastain, who starred in the movie Interstellar. When Hollywood Reporter asked Interstellar cast members if they would personally like to go into space, Chastain was the only one who said no — quite emphatically.

Yet, NASA chose Chastain to narrate this new advertisement for its Orion program.

Based on official plans, Orion will carry only four astronauts into space, once every two years — the lowest flight rate since Project Mercury. It would appear that NASA, like Chastain, has a fear of flying in space [very often].

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on December 30th, 2014 , Space Exploration (General)

Airbus Defense and Space (the aerospace conglomerate formerly known as Astrium) is considering incorporating partial reusability into future Ariane rockets.

The move is believed to be a reaction to competition from SpaceX.

Airbus would not recover the entire first stage, like SpaceX, but only the lower portion with engines, pumps, and electronics. Tanks would still be expended. Airbus says the recovered portion represents 80% of the cost of the stage. Building new tanks for each mission will limit the flight rate, however.

2 Comments, Written by Astro1 on October 16th, 2014 , Commercial Space (General)

Earth and Moon from cockpit of XCOR Lynx spacecraft

This artist’s conception shows the Moon as it might appear from the cockpit of the XCOR Lynx spacecraft.

This is a sight that can only be seen from space: The Moon against a black sky, with the Earth in daylight. Fewer than .00001% of the world’s population have had the opportunity to see this sight. That number will increase dramatically in the next few years, when suborbital spaceflight becomes commercially available.

At first glance, the Moon appears oddly dark. We usually think of the Moon as being quite bright, almost a pure white. That’s because we’re used to viewing it at night when our eyes are dark adapted. In reality, the surface of the Moon is fairly dark, as shown by observations and photos taken by the Apollo astronauts and the samples they brought back. Seen from space, with the sunlit Earth as a reference, the Moon shows its true color.

For a more complete explanation of the Moon’s appearance from space, read this article.

1 Comment, Written by Astro1 on October 9th, 2014 , Lunar Science, XCOR Aerospace

Stratolaunch aircraft and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser lifting body

NASA said “no” to Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser lifting body, but Sierra Nevada Corporation is not giving up the fight to build a vehicle that can carry American astronauts into orbit and return to land on an airport runway.

Sierra Nevada has announced a new partnership with Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems, which is currently developing the world’s largest aircraft to serve as the first stage for orbital launch systems. As part of this joint venture, Sierra Nevada is designing a scaled-down (75%) version of Dream Chaser that can carry three people and be launched from the Stratolaunch aircraft. The vehicle will also be capably of flying unscrewed space missions (similar to the US Air Force’s X-37 spaceplane), as well as “light cargo transportation or suborbital point-to-point transportation.”

One possible customer for suborbital point-to-point transportation might be the US military. At the beginning of the 21st Century, the United States Marine Corps studied a concept called Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion (SUSTAIN), which would use suborbital vehicles for rapid delivery of special forces to hot spots around the world. In 2002, a USMC “universal need statement” said, in part, “The Marine Corps needs a capability to transport small mission-tailored units through space from any point on the globe to a contingency at any other point on the globe within minutes…. The War on Terrorism highlights the need for flexible, rapid response options to contingencies around the world at their earliest stages.

Sierra Nevada is also continuing to market the full-size Dream Chaser. At the 65th International Astronautical Congress in Toronto on 30 September, the company announced the Dream Chaser Global Project, offering international customers a turn-key spaceflight capability including vehicle, astronaut training, and mission support.

NASA’s Commercial Crew program rejected Dream Chaser in favor of two capsules, Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon V2, in a decision announced on 16 September.

Boeing won out over Sierra Nevada even though its bid was $900 million higher and proposal-scoring rules weighted cost as the primary criterion: equal to the other two criteria (mission suitability and past performance) combined.

Some observers have suggested that NASA may have made the decision based on “cost realism,” effectively rewarding Boeing for submitting the highest-cost proposal. Rumors say that Boeing, unlike SpaceX and Sierra Nevada, has invested very little of its own money in previous phases of the Commercial Crew program, relying almost entirely on NASA funding. Boeing has also made less progress to date, producing mostly paper, while SpaceX and Sierra Nevada have been building actual hardware.

Sierra Nevada has filed a formal protest, which will be evaluated by the Government Accounting Office. As a result, NASA Commercial Crew contracts are on hold until the GAO completes its investigation, which may not occur until January. Sierra Nevada is not betting the farm on a positive outcome of that protest, however.

Sierra Nevada’s loss does not really come as a surprise, however. NASA telegraphed its view of Dream Chaser in the last phase of Commercial Crew contract awards, in August 2012, when Sierra Nevada was reduced to half funding. Arguably, the decision was made two years ago and NASA was simply going through the motions this time around.

The “capsule mentality” has dominated NASA’s thinking since the days of Project Mercury. NASA’s Commercial Crew program has rejected space planes not once, but twice. Orbital Sciences Corporation proposed a similar vehicle, Prometheus, which didn’t survive the cut in 2012 even though it was based on work OSC previously did for NASA under the Orbital Space Plane program. (NASA ultimately rejected the wing design for Orbital Space Plane in favor of an Apollo-like capsule, which later became the Crew Exploration Vehicle, now known as Orion.)

Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser / Orbital Sciences Prometheus

2 Comments, Written by Astro1 on October 8th, 2014 , Sierra Nevada, Stratolaunch

The European Space Agency is preparing for the first suborbital test flight of its Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) reentry demonstrator, which may pave the way for future development of a European orbital spaceplane. Ironically, the test comes at a time when NASA has once again turned its back on spaceplane technology in favor of sixties-style space capsules.

IXV is a lifting-body vehicle, about five meters (15 feet) long and weighing almost two tons, which will test technologies for autonomous controlled reentry. IXV is scheduled for launch on a Vega rocket from the European spaceport in French Guiana in mid-November.

IXV will explore the coupling of inertial measurement units with GPS data and the combination of flaps and thrusters for control in hypersonic flight. It will also test the performance of thermal-protection materials and designs, including thermal expansion, seals, and gaps.

ESA hopes that data gathered by IXV will provide a better understanding of aerothermodynamic reentry phenomena governed by complex real-gas laws that are difficult to predict, reducing design margins required in future vehicles.

During the test flight, IXV will reach a maximum altitude of 450 kilometers (280 miles). On reentry, it will reach a speed of 7.5 km/s (over 16,000 mph) at 120 km (75 mi). At the completion of the mission, the vehicle will descend by parachute and be recovered in the Pacific Ocean after traveling more than halfway around the world.

The next step after IXV could be the Programme for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator in Europe (PRIDE) mission. PRIDE would perform a complete end-to-end orbital mission and return to land on a runway.

ESA sees numerous applications for autonomous atmospheric reentry vehicles, including servicing orbital facilities such as the International Space Station, refueling and disposal of unmanned satellites, microgravity experimentation, high-altitude atmospheric research and Earth observation, and sample return from Mars or the asteroids.

European Space Agency PRIDE mission

ESA is also collaborating with Sierra Nevada to develop hardware and mission concepts for the Dream Chaser orbital spaceplane.

Sierra Nevada is marketing Dream Chaser as a space utility vehicle that could serve as a platform for technology demonstrations, construction and repair missions, and crewed or un-crewed scientific missions.

ESA is currently working with Sierra Nevada to identify applications of European hardware, software, and know-how, as well as studying a possible industrial consortium to use Dream Chaser for European missions. Following this evaluation and planning phase, which will continue throughout 2014, ESA and Sierra Nevada hope to sign a long-term agreement leading to flight operations.

3 Comments, Written by Astro1 on October 8th, 2014 , Commercial Space (General)

XCOR Lynx spacecraft under construction

XCOR Aerospace is reporting progress on its path toward commercial space flight. Some of that progress is shown in new photos, which XCOR has publicly released for the first time.

XCOR recently completed integration of the Lynx spacecraft fuselage and cockpit, as shown above. XCOR is currently in the process of bonding the fuselage, cockpit, and wing strakes together. The company is also integrating subassemblies, such as the landing gear, and engine components (shown below).

At the same time, XCOR continues to test the Lynx propulsion system, using a non-flight fuselage for cold flow and hot firing.

“Teams are working in parallel to finish Lynx,” XCOR President Andrew Nelson said. “We are hiring shop staff and engineers to prepare for the final stretch leading up to test flights. I’m proud of what the team has accomplished this year. The excitement in the hangar is palpable.”

“The team at XCOR has been working a long time to reach this goal,” said XCOR CEO Jeff Greason. “We always knew there would be a day when we could see a spacecraft forming in our hangar. Today is that day.”

XCOR technician Ray Fitting prepares LOX pump for fitting on Lynx truss

1 Comment, Written by Astro1 on October 7th, 2014 , XCOR Aerospace

Space Adventures circumlunar mission

Space Adventures will launch its first circumlunar mission in 2018, according to the Russian news service Interfax. Political factors could disrupt the trip, however.

The mission would use a modified Soyuz capsule, which would rendezvous and dock with a Russian upper stage. The upper stage would then be used to propel the Soyuz onto a circumlunar trajectory, in a manner similar to what was once planned for Lunar Gemini flights.

Before heading to the Moon, the Soyuz crew (Russian cosmonaut pilot and two Space Adventures customers) would spend about 10 days at the International Space Station. This would allow the crew to adapt to the weightless environment, so any problems with space sickness would be past before the circumlunar leg begins.

Space Adventures has been marketing the lunar flight for several years now. Filling the first seat was apparently no problem, but selling the second seat caused some delay. In June 2014, Space Adventures announced that it had sold the second seat and the project was ready to begin. (Seats reportedly sell for $150 million.)

Reaction from Russia has been mixed, however. The Russian space company Energia expressed some enthusiasm for the project. A few weeks later, the Russian Space Agency (RSA or Roscosmos) repudiated the plan.

It’s possible that Space Adventures and Energia could carry out the mission without participation from the Russian Space Agency, but the Russian government has recently been asserting increased control over the Russian space industry. The government currently owns 38% of Energia stock but is seeking majority control. In August, Energia president Vitaly Lopota was suspended from his post. Lapota has been under criminal investigation for abuse of office, a charge that is widely seen as politically motivated.

The Russian government has announced ambitious space plans which include lunar missions, but Russia has the habit of announcing grandiose plans which are never funded. Even if lunar missions do occur, it remains to be seen if Russia has any interest in cooperating with US commercial space companies.

1 Comment, Written by Astro1 on October 6th, 2014 , Space Adventures