Virgin Galactic debuts its first third-generation spaceship, ‘VSS Imagine’

CEO Michael Colglazier talks about building a consumer space brand

By Darrell Etherington

Commercial human spaceflight company Virgin Galactic has unveiled the first-ever Spaceship III, the third major iteration of its spacecraft design. The first in this new series is called “VSS (Virgin SpaceShip) Imagine,” and will start ground testing now with the aim of beginning its first glide flights starting this summer. VSS Imagine has a snazzy new external look, including a mirrored wraparound finish that’s designed to reflect the spacecraft’s changing environment as it makes its way from the ground to space — but more importantly, it moves Virgin Galactic closer to achieving the engineering goals it requires to produce a fleet of spacecraft at scale.

I spoke to Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier about VSS Imagine, and what it represents for the company.

“We can build these at a faster pace,” he explained. “These are still relatively slow, versus what we want in our next class of spaceships. But what we do expect to have here is, we’ve taken all the learnings from [VSS] Unity, and built-in what we need to do so that we can turn these ships at a faster pace, because obviously, the number of flights we can do is the product of how many ships you have, and how quickly you can turn them.”

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Atmosphere-monitoring satellites will ride on Spaceflight’s new breed of space tug

An artist’s conception shows one of NASA’s LLITED satellites in orbit. (Illustration by The Aerospace Corp.)

By Alan Boyle

Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it’s won a contract to handle the launch logistics for a pair of NASA satellites that will study the factors behind atmospheric drag.

The twin CubeSats for a mission known as Low-Latitude Ionosphere / Thermosphere Enhancements in Density, or LLITED, are to be lofted into orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket around the end of this year. That launch that will mark the first use of Spaceflight’s Sherpa-LTC orbital transfer vehicle, also known as an OTV or space tug.

In January, a different type of Spaceflight space tug, the Sherpa-FX, successfully deployed more than a dozen spacecraft after a Falcon 9 launch. The Sherpa-LTC represents a step above the FX because it has its own in-orbit propulsion system.

The chemical-based thruster system, built for Spaceflight by Benchmark Space Systems, makes it possible for the Sherpa-LTC to shift between different orbital locations. Spaceflight’s mission plan calls for an initial round of satellite deployments, followed by a maneuver that will set the Sherpa up for deploying the LLITED satellites in a different orbit.

“Spaceflight’s full-service offering with our portfolio of Sherpa OTV vehicles greatly increases the scientific opportunities for NASA, universities, and other organizations that require deployments to non-traditional orbital destinations,” Valerie Skarupa, director of government business development for Spaceflight Inc., said in a news release.

Yet another type of OTV, the Sherpa-LTE, will soon make its debut with an electric propulsion system.

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British start-up lands state backing to build interplanetary plasma thrusters

The new technology could dramatically improve satellite propulsion and be used to advance space travel

By Michael Cogley

A British start-up that is developing interplanetary plasma thrusters to propel satellites through space has received government funding.

Magdrive, which is based in the Harwell Campus near Oxford, has been granted £64,200 to develop its tech as part of a funding round from the UK Space Agency.

The global space propulsion market is already worth around $5.8bn (£4.15bn) but has been tipped to grow to $19.3bn by 2027. Growth in the sector is likely to be driven by demand for lost-cost small satellites, which can be used for anything from communications to data gathering.

Magdrive, which was founded in 2019, has built a thruster for the satellites that will allow them to move in space and navigate space debris.

The plasma thrusters, which were developed alongside Rocket Engineering, are around the size of a can of coffee. 

The company, which closed a £1.4m seed round in December, claims its technology will allow satellite companies to operate on completely different business models. Advertisement

Magdrive claims its plasma thruster burns 100 times hotter than that of a rocket with the outlay contained by a magnetic field.

In a plasma state, the propellant becomes highly electrically reactive by moving through magnetic coils. This hot plasma exhaust provides the thrust.

The technology has the potential to replace existing electrical and chemical alternatives, which face problems around thrust and efficiency.

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The World’s First Space Hotel to Open in 2027

The team working on Voyager Station hopes to partner with SpaceX in its aim to send passengers to the first-ever space hotel.

By Nick Mafi

The Voyager Station, which would accommodate 280 guests, aims to be the first commercial space hotel upon completion

Those of us making grand postpandemic travel plans might want to consider the final frontier as a destination. That’s because Orbital Assembly Corporation, a new construction company run by former pilot John Blincow, is planning to open a luxury space hotel by 2027. Voyager Station, as it’s being called, would accommodate 280 guests and 112 crew members while aiming to be the first commercial space hotel, upon completion.

“We’re trying to make the public realize that this golden age of space travel is just around the corner. It’s coming. It’s coming fast,” Blincow told CNN in an interview. Golden age indeed, as space tourism has piqued the interest of such visionaries as Richard Branson and Elon Musk. And it’s the latter Blincow and his team hope to partner with in the near future. “We cannot call [Musk’s] SpaceX our partner, but in the future we look forward to working with them,” Blincow said at a recent live, asking the viewers to “hang tight.”

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Space Race: China to Launch New Space Station; Trains Astronauts for Crewed Flights

The central module for China’s proposed orbital space station has passed a flight approval examination. It will launch in the coming months, kicking off a whirlwind of major missions for the region.


IN SPACE – MAY 23: In this handout image provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, the International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour orbit Earth during Endeavour’s final sortie on May 23, 2011 in Space. Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli captured the first-ever images of an orbiter docked to the International Space Station from the viewpoint of a departing vessel as he returned to Earth in a Soyuz capsule.

China Manned Space, the world’s human spaceflight agency, announced on January 14 as the country prepares to begin work on its own three-module space station.

The Tianhe central module, which means “harmony of the heavens,” will be the primary living quarters for three-person crews visiting for up to six months.

Following the completion of the space station and the establishment of a national space laboratory, a number of subsequent flight missions will be carried out as planned.

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Kentucky firm plans orbital mini space station in two years

by Paul Brinkmann

A Kentucky space firm that conducts science experiments on the International Space Station has plans to launch its own miniature, automated orbital research platform in about two years.

Lexington-based Space Tango has small research containers, or CubeLabs, on the space station. Bustling business and growing need for such experiments in microgravity led the company to plan its own space station, founder and CEO Twyman Clements said.

“As the scale of our business grows across a number of uses, having a dedicated spacecraft for manufacturing is the way to go,” Clements said in an interview Friday.

He declined to say how much the company would spend on the project or how much each spacecraft might cost.

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New Rocket Thruster Concept to Take Humans to Mars 10 Times Faster

The fusion rocket concept

By  Fabienne Lang

What’s next might be building a solid prototype. 

A physicist has come up with a new rocket engine thruster concept that could take people to Mars ten times more quickly. 

The physicist in question, Fatima Ebrahimi, is the concept’s inventor and is part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).

Ebrahimi’s study was published in the Journal of Plasma Physics.

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SCIENTISTS WANT TO SEND A ROBOT MADE OF ICE TO ANOTHER PLANET

VICTOR TANGERMANN

Scientists-want-send-robot-made-of-ice
ICEBOT

A team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are trying to figure out if we can send robots that are made out of ice to another planet, IEEE Spectrum reports.

The idea is to create a robot design that can leverage local resources to repair itself in case it ever breaks down.

As detailed in a new paper presented at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, the researchers looked a variety of ways of creating robots out of ice by using both additive and subtractive manufacturing processes.

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Scientists discover a superhighway network to travel the solar system

Shane McGlaun 

Scientists-discover-superhighway-network-travel-solar-system

Researchers have discovered what they describe as a new superhighway network to travel the solar system much faster than previously thought possible. Scientists say that these routes can push comets and asteroids close to the distance between Jupiter and Neptune in under a decade. The speedy paths can also move comets and asteroids 100 astronomical units in less than a century.

It’s possible these superhighway networkscould be used to send spacecraft to the far reaches of the planetary system relatively quickly. Now that these networks have been discovered, they can also be used to monitor and understand near-Earth objects that might impact our planet. Researchers have observed the dynamical structures of these routes, forming a connected series of arches inside something known as space manifolds extending from the asteroid belt to Uranus and beyond.

The “œcelestial autobahn” can act over several decades instead of hundreds of thousands or millions of years that usually go along with solar system dynamics. Jupiter is linked to the most conspicuous arch structures, and the strong gravitational forces exerted. The population of Jupiter-family comets, which have orbital periods of 20 years, and small solar system bodies known as Centaurs are controlled by manifolds on “unprecedented timescales.”

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The plan to turn scrapped rockets into space stations

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Spent rockets are dangerous space trash, but they could be the future of living and working in orbit.

IN EARLY OCTOBER, a dead Soviet satellite and the abandoned upper stage of a Chinese rocket narrowly avoided a collision in low Earth orbit. If the objects had crashed, the impact would have blown them to bits and created thousands of new pieces of dangerous space debris. Only a few days prior, the European Space Agency had published its annual space environment report, which highlighted abandoned rocket bodies as one of the biggest threats to spacecraft. The best way to mitigate this risk is for launch providers to deorbit their rockets after they’ve delivered their payload. But if you ask Jeffrey Manber, that’s a waste of a perfectly good giant metal tube.

Manber is the CEO of Nanoracks, a space logistics company best known for hosting private payloads on the International Space Station, and for the past few years he has been working on a plan to turn the upper stages of spent rockets into miniature space stations. It’s not a new idea, but Manber feels its time has come. “NASA has looked at the idea of refurbishing fuel tanks several times,” he says. “But it was always abandoned, usually because the technology wasn’t there.” All of NASA’s previous plans depended on astronauts doing a lot of the manufacturing and assembly work, which made the projects expensive, slow, and hazardous. Manber’s vision is to create an extraterrestrial chop shop where astronauts are replaced by autonomous robots that cut, bend, and weld the bodies of spent rockets until they’re fit to be used as laboratories, fuel depots, or warehouses.

The Nanoracks program, known as Outpost, will modify rockets after they’re done with their mission to give them a second life. The first Outposts will be uncrewed stations made from the upper stages of new rockets, but Manber says it’s possible that future stations could host people or be built from rocket stages already in orbit. In the beginning, Nanoracks won’t use the interior of the rocket and will mount experiment payloads, power supply modules, and small propulsion units to the outside of the fuselage. Once company engineers have that figured out, they can focus on developing the inside of the rocket as a pressurized laboratory.

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Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin venture fleshes out plans for 2023 cargo delivery to the moon

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An artist’s conception shows the human landing system that’s being developed by Blue Origin and its industry partners in the foreground, and Blue Origin’s Blue Moon cargo lander in the far background. (Blue Origin Illustration)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is working on a landing system that could put astronauts on the moon by as early as 2024 — but it’s also keeping its options open to deliver a ton of cargo to the lunar surface a year before that.

Blue Origin’s chief scientist, Steve Squyres, outlined the current state of plans for an Amazon-like cargo delivery to the moon today during a virtual symposium presented by the University of Washington’s Space Policy and Research Center.

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Small rocket company Rocket Lab aims for orbital reusability

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California-based Rocket Lab plans to make its orbital Electron rocket, pictured before a launch from New Zealand in June, reusable.

ORLANDO, Fla., Nov. 4 (UPI) — Small launch company Rocket Lab has a big agenda for the end of 2020, including plans for its first liftoff from U.S. soil and its first attempt to recover a first-stage booster after launch.

The California-based company, known for launching in New Zealand, is on target to tackle both goals this year, founder and CEO Peter Beck said in an interview Tuesday.

If Rocket Lab’s first launch from Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport is successful, the company intends to launch regularly from that site.

“We have an agreement to fly 12 times a year from Virginia and we hope to fill those slots,” Beck said. “The pad and the integration facility will house multiple Electron rockets at the same time. Our facility there is designed for rapid response launches.”

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