Comments at a recent meeting of a government advisory board indicate that launch-pad shortages are affecting launch-vehicle economics.

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Written by Astro1 on September 6th, 2012 , Commercial Space (General), Stratolaunch Tags:

Weather has delayed the launch of two Radiation Belt Storm Probes on an Atlas rocket, which was scheduled for today. This is the second time the launch has been delayed.

Launch crews are concerned about lightning and flight through cumulus clouds due to storm conditions south and east of Cape Canaveral. With Tropical Storm Isaac coming in, another launch attempt is not expected before August 30.

Weather has also forced the postponement of a Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding-rocket launch, carrying four student experiments, from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Again, this was the second time the launch was delayed. The first launch attempt, on Thursday, was delayed due to unauthorized boats in the launch area.

Weather delays are common, even in aviation, but current launch systems are much more susceptible to weather than modern aircraft are. The result is poor dispatch reliability. That’s not a major problem for the current launches – neither the Radiation Belt Storm Probes nor the student experiments are time-critical – but it can play havoc on missions that have limited launch windows, such as planetary missions.

Dispatch reliability will also be important for operational military missions, such as DARPA’s Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements, and for future commercial missions. This may be an important operational advantage for ALASA, StratoLaunchLauncher OneGO Launcher, and other airborne launch systems which have carrier aircraft that can fly around weather systems.

Written by Astro1 on August 25th, 2012 , Commercial Space (General) Tags:

[Update 3/25/14: DARPA has awarded an ALASA development contract to Boeing.]

Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) is a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It is headed by Mitchell Burnside Clapp, a long-time advocate of air launch and winged systems. Burnside Clapp was one of the founders of Pioneer Rocketplane, which later became Rocketplane, LLC.

ALASA seeks to address military concerns with traditional ground-launched systems. The military views these systems as costly due to high manpower requirements at fixed facilities, sluggish due to the need to reconfigure pads between launches, rigid due to limitations on launch azimuth launch times, and brittle because they are vulnerable to weather, earthquake, tsunamis, and enemy attack. DARPA believes that air launched systems will be more affordable, more responsive (the goal is one day from call-up to launch), more flexible (any orbit, any time), and more resilient.

Airborne Launch Assist for Space Access (ALASA) Launch Sequence -- DARPA project

Like NASA’s Nanosatellite Launch Challenge, ALASA hopes to develop a reliable, cost-effective launcher for small satellites. DARPA’s definition of “small” is a bit different, though. The NASA challenge is targeting CubeSat-sized payloads up to one kilogram. ALASA wants to develop a system that can put up to 100 pounds (45 kilograms) into Low Earth Orbit. That would apparently rule out systems like the GO Launcher, for example.

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Written by Astro1 on April 21st, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites Tags:

Generation Orbit is a new subsidiary of SpaceWorks Engineering. Headed by SpaceWorks veteran A.C. Charania, Generation Orbit plans to develop an air-launch system for nanosatellites.

Generation Orbit estimates there are 250 nanosatellite projects at the present time. It expects that there will be a market for 100 nano satellite launches per year by the end of this decade. Currently, most small satellites are launched as secondary payloads on rideshare missions, which means their operators have little or no control over launch schedule and orbital destination. Generation Orbit believes that air launch will provide more flexibility.

The company’s initial demonstrator, GO Launcher 1, would use existing solid-fueled upper stages. Go Launcher 1 could mature into an operational capability capable of delivering 1-10 kilograms to a 250-kilometer circular orbit.

GO Launcher 2 would be a larger system capable of placing 20-30 kilograms into a 450 km circular orbit. It might incorporate new technology.

Generation Orbit’s conceptual design appears quite open at the present time. The company’s website shows potential concepts based on the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II and F-15D Eagle, the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, and a Gulfstream II or III business jet.

Gulfstream, F-4 Phantom II, F-15 Eagle, and Su-27 Flanker

The F-15 option parallels a future concept being studied at at Premier Space Systems.

The Su-27 option might seem odd choice, given that Generation Orbit intends to operate in the US. The company hopes to fly from a variety of launch sites including the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in California, Kennedy Space Center, and Cecil Field Spaceport in Jacksonville, Florida. 

There is at least one operation Su-27 in the United States at the present time, however. Reliable sources tell us that the registered owner is actually a dummy company owned by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. There is no reason to believe he’s involved with Generation Orbit, however.

By coincidence, Paul Allen is also has an interest in air-launch projects, having financed the development of SpaceShip One and being the founder of Stratolaunch.

A.C. Charania has participated in workshops for NASA’s Nanosatellite Launch Challenge, so it seems a safe bet that Generation Orbit intends to compete for that prize.

Written by Astro1 on April 21st, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites Tags:

Using high-performance aircraft or suborbital spacecraft as launch platforms for upper stages is an idea that’s gaining considerable attention these days. XCOR Aerospace, for example, believes that nanosatellite launches will be a big part of its Lynx business model.

The idea has considerable design history behind it. In the early 1960’s, NASA considered using the X-15 as a launch platform to place satellites up to 150 pounds in orbit:

NASA X-15 Blue Scout launch platform

The official NASA history X-15 Extending the Frontiers of Flight by Dennis R. Jenkins discusses the Blue Scout concept in some detail: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 21st, 2012 , Space History Tags:

Given the recent interest in using jet fighters as launch platforms, it’s interesting to look at some past proposals.

The late Len Cormier was an old-school aerospace engineer who became involved with space just prior to Sputnik. He was also a good friend who never tired of regaling us with tales of dating Marilyn Monroe. Len worked for North American Aviation, which later became part of Rockwell International, and was involved in some of the design studies that led to the Rockwell Space Shuttle. He became convinced that the Space Shuttle would never live up to the economic benefits which Rockwell and NASA claimed for it – it was too large, too expensive, and too complex, in his view – and left to form his own company (PanAero, Inc.) to pursue his own designs. Len continued working up until his death in 2008, always championing vehicles which were small, simple, and designed to minimize development costs.

Len’s primary interest was vehicles that could carry humans to orbit (such as the Space Van) but he also worked on suborbital rockets and satellite launchers. One of his later designs was a concept to launch a 100-kilogram (220-lb) satellite from an F-14A Tomcat. The US Navy fighter was an appropriate choice for Len, who flew fighters off a Navy carrier during World War II, but it was made for sound engineering reasons. Len believed the design of the F-14 was better suited for carrying underslung payloads than other aircraft such as the F-15 Eagle. In addition, F-14 airframes were readily available (at least to the US government). The Navy was in the process of retiring F-14s from active service and good-quality airframes were filling government boneyards. Unfortunately, Len ran into some difficulty persuading the government to sell recently retired military aircraft to a civilian company.

Premier Space Systems is currently considering a similar concept for their future orbital system. PSS would use an F-15A or B model rather than the F-14.

PanAero F-14 space launch platform

Written by Astro1 on March 20th, 2012 , Commercial Space (General), Space History Tags:

Jet fighters originally developed in the 1950’s are now being pressed into service as suborbital (and perhaps orbital) launch platforms. Two groups on opposite ends of the country are working on similar projects.

In the Southeast, 4Frontiers Corporation is developing the Star Lab suborbital rocket with sponsorship from the Florida Space Grant Consortium. Star Lab is an unguided rocket that would be launched from an F-104 flying from Kenneday Space Center and operated by Starfighters, Inc. Star Lab would carry 4 to 13 payloads with a total mass of 32 kilograms (70 lb.) to an altitude of 80-120 kilometers (47-70 miles). 4Frontiers Corporation is currently offering payload space at $8,000 (2 kg.), $13,333 (4 kg.), and $16,667 (8 kg.). The group plans to conduct powered launch tests during the first half of 2012 with regular commercial launches beginning in mid-2012.

F-104 Starfighter

In the Pacific Northwest, Premier Space Systems is working with Space Propulsion Group to develop a suborbital rocket launched by an ex-Soviet MiG-21. The Nanolaunch rocket is designed to carry a 45-kilogram (100 lb.) payload to 100 kilometers (62 mi.) or a 23-kilogram (50 lb.) payload to 132 kilometers (82 miles). Future versions of the rocket would be able to place payloads into orbit. Premier Space Systems is based in Oregon and operates out of Siskiyou County Airport in California. PSS began captive-carry test flights in September 2011 which will continue through June 2012. It has not yet announced a date for live-fire testing.

The F-104 and MiG-21 are quite similar aircraft in terms of age and performance. Both were designed as high-performance Mach 2 interceptors. The F-104, designed by legendary Lockheed designer Kelly Johnson, entered service with the USAF in 1958. The MiG-21 entered service with the Soviet Air Force the following year. The F-104 was soon retired from USAF service, however (although some US allies, such as Italy, continued operating it until the 21st Century). The MiG-21 remained in service with the Soviet Union and its allies for decades and became the most-produced jet fighter in history. More than 11,000 were built (over 13,000 if you include the J-7, a reverse-engineered Chinese copy).

Using jet fighters as launch platforms is not a new idea. Project NOTSNIK used a Douglas F4D Skyray, another 1950’s vintage fighter.

Both aircraft were both designed as highly optimized, lightweight high-performance fighters. This makes them well-suited for use as rocket-launch platforms, so it’s no coincidence that the two ventures have similarities. It’s no coincidence that both ventures have coastal locations, either. Being located near the ocean greatly simplifies the impact-area problem for such rocket launches.


Written by Astro1 on March 20th, 2012 , Commercial Space (General) Tags:

Project NOTSNIK is one of the obscure footnotes of space history.

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Written by Astro1 on March 17th, 2012 , Nanosatellites, Space History Tags: