Science and space tourism shook hands this week with NASA announcing 12 technology experiments that will fly on the SpaceShipTwo spaceplane under a charter agreement with Virgin Galactic. The payload is a mixture of government, academic, and private microgravity experiments that will form the first commercial research flight for the spacecraft.
Virgin Galactic is known mainly for booking tourists, who will fly into space for the sobering price of US$250,000. But it’s flagship, SpaceShipTwo, is also designed to carry scientific experiments for the more research-minded customer. One of three charter flights under the $4.5 million contract with Virgin Galactic to carry up to 1,300 lbs (590 kg) of scientific experiments per flight, the NASA mission will be conducted as part of NASA's Flight Opportunities Program to provide a microgravity environment for experiments and encourage the development of commercial space industries.
The purpose of the flight is to test new experiments in the weightless environment that the spaceplane produces at the peak of its suborbital flight. Though the roughly six minutes – depending on trajectory – that SpaceShipTwo will experience weightlessness doesn’t seem like much, it is enough to collect important data and to determine if an experiment is worth taking the more expensive step of sending it to the International Space Station.
For the flight, the passenger seats will be removed and replaced with racks to secure the experiments from crashing about during the rocket-powered ascent. The 12 experiments chosen include eight from academic and research organizations, two from from private industry, and two from NASA. Contributors include Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Texas A&M University, University of Colorado, Made in Space, and Controlled Dynamics, Inc.
- On-Orbit Propellant Storage Stability: A study of the stability of a prototype orbital refueling system for long-duration space missions.
- Electromagnetic Field Measurements: Measures the electromagnetic field inside the spacecraft as part of study into the effects of how the vehicle’s systems can interfere with experiments.
- Collisions Into Dust Experiment: This is an experiment aimed at future missions to asteroids and small moons. It fires an impactor at a patch of simulated regolith and records the scattering of fine particles in microgravity.
- Validating Telemetric Imaging Hardware for Crew-Assisted and Crew-Autonomous Biological Imaging project: This experiment uses fluorescent protein-based, gene-expression techniques to test imaging equipment for studying "biological entities" in suborbital trajectories.
- Variable Radiator demonstration: A test of how fluids can transfer heat in spacecraft radiators and similar systems under weightless conditions.
- Micro Satellite Attitude Control System: A test of a mechanism based on the carpal wrist joint for the precision control of the reaction-control gyroscope for pointing small satellites.
- The Saturated Fluid Pistonless Pump Technology Demonstrator: A test of a cryogenic fuel pump system that does not require complex turbines.
- Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transmitter: An experiment aimed at integrating suborbital reusable launch vehicles with stratospheric balloons as part of the US FAA’s next-generation air traffic control system.
- 3D Printer: Test of 3D-printing technology to aid in the development of custom 3D printers for space applications.
- Vibration Suppression Experiment: Test of a prototype vibration suppression system to improve results in microgravity experiments.
- Suborbital Flight Environment Monitor: This payload uses sensors to measure acceleration in flight for better calibration of microgravity experiments.
- Microgravity Multi-Phase Flow Experiment for Suborbital Testing: An experiment that uses a two-phase flow system with a passive gas and liquid separation for zero-gravity water purification and other applications in space.
The date of the experiment-carrying flight has yet to be announced.