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Suborbital Joy Rides from Virgin Galactic in 2013

Very cool news today from Virgin Galactic!  This year will see the final stages of the testing for the first commercial joyride into space.  Ever since the Virgin Group-backed X-Prize winning ship “Spaceship One” became the first private aircraft to reach suborbital flight, we’ve been waiting for the announcement that civilians can finally pay for a ticket to space.  Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said today that the two craft designed to take people to space are undergoing the final stages of their respective testing programs.  The first craft, White Knight Two (WK2) has run over 75 test flights for WK2 and 16 glide flights for the actual spacecraft SpaceShipTwo.  If you’re not familiar with the Virgin Galactic model of leaving the planet it has some large differences from how the boys over at NASA do it.  It requires two aircraft to pull it off.  The first craft, WhiteKnightTwo, is a huge jet-powered cargo plane that carries the actual spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, under its belly.  Both ascend to an altitude of about 35,000 feet before SS2 is dropped by WK2.  After plunging for a few seconds WK2’s single booster engine ignites sending it into a 90° vertical climb away from the Earth.  Once an altitude of 100,000 kilometers is reached the engines shut off and you’re now in space!  The six passengers on board can then unbuckle and experience the weightlessness of suborbital space.  When the craft is ready to descend SS2’s “feathered” wings raise to 90° to minimize the effects of re-entry while ascending through the atmosphere.  Then just like the space shuttle, SS2 touches down on Space Port America’s runway in New Mexico.

The verdict from Whitesides is that final booster tests for SS2 will begin by the summer and full-scale launches will take place in the fall.  If everything goes to plan (and it pretty much has so far) Virgin could be sending the first space tourists up by the spring of 2013!  Virgin has already booked over 400 tickets for the first year and has collected $60 million in deposits already, representing $100 million of income.  Tickets are moderately priced at $200,000 so that pretty much rules out all but the proverbial 1% from every participating in this amazing experience.  But nonetheless, Virgin Galactic represents a huge milestone in humanity’s effort to expand the limits of our world and to use space in new and exciting ways.  Hopefully the success of Virgin Galactic will usher in a wave to similar ventures that continue to push the envelope (and bring the price down).

In a Galaxy Full, Full of Junk…

“What a wonderful smell you’ve discovered!” cried Han Solo to Chewbacca after jumping down the chute into the trash compactor.  The compactor was full with Death Star junk and Han, Chewie, Luke and Leia could barely walk for all the trash.  Then the creepy dianoga grabs Luke and the walls start to compact.  C-3PO has neglected his comm link and death by pancaking is narrowly avoided!  (All this while “Ben Kenobi’s Death/TIE Fighter Attack” begins to play on iTunes!) This might be exaggerated slightly but I think that it represents a very real problem that our planet is facing.

Low-Earth orbit (LEO) and our geosynchronous orbit is becoming increasingly dangerous because of the many thousands of pieces of debris left over from jettisoned spaceship parts, broken satellites, and other random pieces of junk, not to mention the thousands of satellites already orbiting the planet.  The sheer amount of debris that is hanging out in orbit would pose a big threat to the future of space travel, and in particular space tourism.  Both of the Republican primary front-runners, Romney and Gingrich, have plans to ramp up America’s space presence, albeit in the private sector.  Speaker Gingrich’s plan involves a sizable space tourism and moon colonization effort by the end of his second term in 2020 which would mean constant travel back and forth along the Earth-moon transit.

LEO and geosynchronous satellites around Earth

Every satellite launched into orbit adds another potential threat of collision to a spacecraft.  There is also the threat of two satellites loosing communication with the ground and loosing orbital velocity and crashing into another satellite, or spaceship.  Now while an incident like that involving loss of life would at least be sustainable by NASA or any other government operation, the private sector would not be able to handle a death in space.  If a spaceship full of tourists en route to the moon collides with a rogue satellite or piece of junk and all the passengers are lost chaos would ensue on the ground.  Cries for the end of space tourism and stricter debris management would never end!  Space tourism might be nixed altogether and space would once again be the realm of governments only.

I guess the proper Star Wars illustration for how the situation could end up would be from The Empire Strikes Back when Han, Chewie, and Leia are flying the Millennium Falcon through the asteroid field and C-3PO cries, “Sir, the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field are approximately 3,720 to 1!”  While the Hoth asteroid field is not representative of our solar system’s asteroid field because of the erratic nature of it, it could one day represent the clutter of space junk collected in our planet’s orbit.

What should be done?  Well I’m no physicist or engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but there seems to be a couple solutions.  One would involve a sort of “kill-switch” on all new satellites that causes them to fall back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere when the ground can’t re-establish communication or if they pose a danger to other satellites or spaceships.  A recovery mission would most likely be far too costly and lengthy, not to mention the risk of handling the defunct satellites or debris.  Equipping new satellites with the ability to maneuver away from threatening debris to avoid collisions is another viable option.

No matter what solution presents itself, it will take a concerted effort from all the spacefaring nations to address the problem.  We must take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of future generations of space travelers whether government or private.

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