The Power of the Suborbital Experiments Market is Growing

SpaceShipTwo in its first powered flight over Mojave.
SpaceShipTwo in its first powered flight over Mojave.

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

Last week, I got to see close-up views of the power of the emerging suborbital space industry in two very different locations some 300 miles apart.

Monday was all about SpaceShipTwo, which lit its engine for the first time over the dusty Mojave Desert and provided viewers on the ground with a 16-second display of flames and black smoke. The little space plane soared skyward above its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane before gliding to a perfect landing on the center line of Runway 30 at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

After cheering on his space plane from the ground, an ebullient Richard Branson quickly announced a 25 percent increase in ticket prices – knowing full well that after the morning’s display, he would have no trouble finding people to pay $250,000 for a seat. That act was a display of power just as impressive as the rocket hot fire that had occurred in the Mojave sky earlier that day. The price hike also put space travel that much more out of reach of your average Joe.

Five days later, I was in green, leafy Mountain View – at the very heart of America’s technology engine, Silicon Valley – listening to speakers talk about launching 10 average citizens into space, where they would operate the experiments that they designed and built from the passenger’s seat of an XCOR Lynx suborbital vehicle.

The two-day Space Hacker Workshop lacked the drama and the star power of Monday’s event. But, the ideas being advanced were, in their own ways, just as powerful. The experiments that will be flown on suborbital vehicles in the years ahead could have significant transformational effects on science, technology, education and society as a whole. In the end, they could be just as important as the tourists who fly aboard these vehicles.

Up until now, getting an experiment into space has been an expensive, time consuming process. The choices have been limited to sounding rockets, the space shuttle, and the International Space Station. All these systems offered rare opportunities to fly and even fewer chances to fly the same experiment more than once.

Reusable suborbital spacecraft promise to change that situation by offering routine and affordable access to the microgravity environment. Citizens in Space Founder Ed Wright predicted that thousands of experiments will be flown into space annually once these vehicles are operating commercially.

The existing limitations has created a pent-up demand to fly experiments into space, which was evident at the Hacker Dojo. Citizens in Space and the Silicon Valley Space Center sold out all 95 tickets to the event, and they had to turn away people at the door.

Attendees heard talks about a variety of microgravity experiments that could be conducted in space in a range of disciplines that included biology, materials sciences, astrobiology, fluid dynamics, Earth sciences and more. The vehicles will also serve as platforms for the testing of new space technologies before they are sent into orbit.

NASA astronaut Yvonne Cagle talked about conducting experiments with waterbears, which are tiny organisms that are virtually impervious to the heat, radiation and vacuum of space. Cagle believes that what we can learn from these organisms can have applications for both human spaceflight and aging.

Jason Reimuller’s Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere (PoSSUM) campaign will study the dynamics of clouds over the North Pole. The vehicle will be launched from a high-inclination spaceport in either Alaska or Sweden.

Citizens in Space is offering cash prizes worth up to $10,000 for the development of a device that will collect tiny micro-organisms living in a region dubbed the “Ignorosphere” through its High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge.

The biggest prizes are seats aboard the Lynx from which citizen scientists will be able to operate the experiments they build during actual spaceflights. Citizens in Space has purchased 10 flights and designated people to fly on five of them. It will award the five additional seats based on the merits of experiments and the qualifications of the people designing them.

Cost will be a key driver in the emerging experiments market. Wright said that citizen scientists could build experiments for as little as $200 or less. That price point – coupled with the relatively low cost of flights – will open up space experiments to large number of people beyond traditional researchers. Wright foresees the field developing within about five years to the point where all high school science students will be able to fly experiments in space before they graduate.

These new spacecraft are coming along at a time when the maker movement has been surging in popularity. Maker spaces – common workshops where people can work on their own projects – have been popping up all over the country. Wright expects the makers to supply many experiments.

The cumulative impacts of these new suborbital vehicles on American science, technology development, and education could be quite profound. The combination of frequent access and relatively low costs could spur revolutions in a number of fields. The challenges of flying small experiments are already spurring on the development of new technologies to gather and process data.

The experiments market has long been the ugly stepsister of the emerging suborbital space market, relegated to a position far behind the well-heeled tourists who will fly. But, if last week’s event in Mountain View is any indication, that situation might not persist for much longer.

  • I agree Doug – DIY Space is about as American as it gets!!

  • many articles on the specific experiments will also expand the knowledge of the many followers of space activity way beyond anything NASA has done for spreading knowledge