CU-Boulder Payload Selected for Launch on Virgin Galactic Spaceship

Credit: Ken Brown
Credit: Ken Brown

BOULDER, Colo. (UC-Boulder PR) — A University of Colorado Boulder payload carrying a novel device designed to reduce the weight and cost of spacecraft fuel pumping systems has been manifested for launch on a suborbital space plane called SpaceShipTwo developed by the aerospace company Virgin Galactic.

The CU-Boulder payload consists of a lubrication-free, pistonless rocket fuel pump, said aerospace engineering sciences Associate Professor Ryan Starkey, principal investigator on the project. The device represents a potential advancement for rocket propellant pressurization and transfer that would reduce the weight and cost of spacecraft fuel systems.

Led by CU-Boulder, the project was initiated as a university-industry partnership between the university and Flometrics, a specialized engineering firm based in Carlsbad, Calif., that holds the patent on the device. Known as The Pistonless Pump Technology Demonstrator, the project was developed using a grant from NASA’s Game Changing Opportunities in Technology Development program.

The payload is one of 12 technology experiments announced by NASA today that will fly on the first commercial research flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. No date has been set for the launch.

“We are looking forward to testing this new technology in the microgravity of space, as well as in the spacecraft boost phase,” Starkey said. “The data generated will help in the design and development of safer, better performing and more cost-effective rocket fuel pumps.”

Founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic designed and developed SpaceShipTwo for space tourism. The space plane is made to carry two crew members and six passengers into the weightlessness of space. Virgin Galactic officials hope to begin flying paid customers on short trips into space within one year.

SpaceShipTwo will be ferried by a “mother” aircraft to roughly 10 miles in altitude before being released on a suborbital trajectory under its own rocket power, quickly reaching the edge of space at about 75 miles in altitude.

“Regular, commercial access to space will change how we approach technology development by allowing us to invest in early research validation,” said Christopher Baker of NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. “The payloads on this flight represent a cross section of the promising space exploration technologies that could benefit future missions.”

The Virgin Galactic commercial flight will be launched from Spaceport in southern New Mexico some 45 north of Las Cruces as part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. The NASA program is designed to validate a variety of technologies that could prove useful to NASA and other agencies for future space exploration missions.