Suborbital Science

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The emerging space tourism industry has already given rise to a spin-off market for hosting scientific payloads.  Companies that are developing space vehicles to fly wealthy adventurers to the edge of space will also be capable of carrying experiments- even research specialists- in place of passengers.  Opportunities to to fly meaningful science into space may soon become commonplace.

The Suborbital Applications Research Group, or SARG, is an organization made up of  scientists, engineers, and experts in various disciplines that are working together to promote and facilitate opportunities to use commercial suborbital spacecraft for scientific research.

Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company and brainchild of British billionaire Richard Branson, is best known for advertising tickets for persons of means to fly to the edge of space.  Although the company’s business model is built upon selling seats to passengers, it is also making it’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle available for scientific research flights.  In place of passenger seats, the rocket-powered spacecraft can be configured with payload racks to fit experiments. XCOR Aerospace, who’s Lynx spacecraft has been featured in numerous contests, is also designing their rocket-plane with the capability to fly research packages.  Secretive  aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin is also building a reusable suborbital rocket and has expressed interest in making their craft available to the scientific community.

Like the famous X-15 experimental rocket plane once flown by NASA and the U.S. Air Force, the vehicles currently being constructed for space tourism will be able to fly to altitudes near the edge of space in excess of 350,000 ft. The flight profile of these craft will resemble a parabolic arc and will include a rapid, high-G ascent followed by near weightlessness at the apogee.  Those minutes of microgravity are the prize sought not only by affluent ticket-holders, but scientists too that hope to learn more about the effects of spaceflight.

A great number of scientific fields will be able to capitalize on the microgravity environment provided by suborbital spacecraft.  Fluids research is one. The dynamics of certain fluidic substances are not yet understood and benefit from experiments conducted in space.  High-altitude atmospherics are also under-observed.  Spacecraft passing through the upper boundary of the stratosphere can be instrumented to record the condition of this region, leading to a better understanding of weather phenomena.  And medical science can exploit the ability to study the effects of acceleration and microgravity on human occupants as these craft fly their missions.

I am a volunteer ambassador for SARG.  As an advocate of suborbital spaceflight, I am tasked with engaging the general public and providing information about the benefits and opportunities to fly science experiments.  By making more people aware of these concepts, SARG is promoting both commercial enterprise and the scientific community.  Spaceflight is no longer limited to government agencies or the armed forces.  Suborbital vehicles will make it possible for colleges and universities to fly student research projects, for laboratories to conduct biomedical trials, and even give some the chance to fly in space where that opportunity wasn’t available before.

This is not science fiction.  Although the missions haven’t flown yet, already several scientists have been selected to fly missions with experimental payloads.  Three scientists from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) have completed spaceflight training and are preparing to fly aboard XCOR Aerospace Lynx spaceplanes when they become operational.  Planetary Scientist Dr. Alan Stern, the principal investigator, or lead scientist of the mission, alongside colleagues Dr. Dan Durda and Dr. Cathy B. Olkin will operate science  equipment on behalf of the laboratory as commercial astronauts.  Similarly, another researcher named Jason Reinmuller was selected to fly as a payload operator of a program called “Project PoSSUM“, or “Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere”.  He is part of a team developing an infrared camera system to study dynamic conditions at altitudes too high for weather balloons.  These are but he first explorers that will lead the way for more to come.

My role as ambassador for SARG is make myself available to educate others concerning the advancement of and opportunities in commercial suborbital spaceflight.  If you know of a school, university, museum, science center or public event that would be interested learning more about how to be involved in suborbital science,  please go to the following link and request a representative of SARG to speak to your institution: http://www.commercialspaceflight.org/sarga/request-a-sarg-ambassador/  I personally would be more than happy to share with you information about our future in space.

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