2018 Was Busy Year for Suborbital Flight Tests

SpaceShipTwo fires its hybrid engine. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part 2 of 2

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

There were 15 flight tests of eight suborbital boosters in 2018, including six flights of two vehicles — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard — that are designed to carry passengers on space tourism rides.

The race to provide launch services to the booming small satellite industry also resulted in nine flight tests of six more conventional boosters to test technologies for orbital systems. Two of the boosters tested are designed to serve the suborbital market as well.

A pair of Chinese startups took advantage of a loosening of government restrictions on launch providers to fly their rockets two times apiece. There was also suborbital flight tests of American, Japanese and South Korean rockets.

The table below shows flight tests of suborbital launch vehicles last year.

FLIGHT TESTS OF SUBORBITAL LAUNCH VEHICLES, 2018
DATELAUNCH VEHICLE
MISSION/PURPOSE/SPONSOR
LAUNCH SITERESULT
04/04/18Hyperbola-1S (Shian Quxian 1S)Flight test by i-space; rocket with mass simulator reached 108 km (67.1 miles/354,331 ft)Hainan Island (China)Success
04/05/18VSS Unity (SpaceShipTwo)Flight test by Virgin Galactic; first powered flight by Unity and fifth of the program; reached 25 km (15.6 miles/82,271 ft)Mojave Air & Space Port (California)Success
04/29/18New ShepardFlight test with mannequin, microgravity experiments & technology demonstrations; reached 107 km (66.5 miles/351,000 ft)Corn Ranch (Texas)Success
05/17/18OS-XFlight test by OneSpace; reached 40 km (24.9 miles/131,234 ft)Alxa (China)Success
05/29/18VSS Unity (SpaceShipTwo)Flight test by Virgin Galactic; second powered flight by Unity and sixth of the program; reached 34.9 km (21.7 miles/114,500 ft)Mojave Air & Space Port (California)Success
06/29/18Momo 2Flight test by Interstellar Technologies; rocket exploded shortly after launchTaiki (Japan)Failure
07/18/18New ShepardFlight test with mannequin, microgravity experiments & technology demonstrations; reached 118.8 km (73.8 miles/389,846 ft)Corn Ranch (Texas)Success
07/20/18Rocket OneFlight test by Astra Space; suffered undisclosed anomaly in flightPacific Spaceport Complex — AlaskaFailure
07/26/18VSS Unity (SpaceShipTwo)Flight test by Virgin Galactic; third powered flight by Unity and seventh of the program; reached 52 km (32.3 miles/170,800 ft)Mojave Air & Space Port (California)Success
08/25/18SARGEFlight test by Exos Aerospace; reusable rocket reached 28 km (17.4 miles/91,864 ft) instead of planned 80 km (49.7 miles/262,467 ft)
Spaceport America Partial Failure
09/05/18Hyperbola-1Z (Shian Quxian 1Z)Flight test by i-space ; rocket with 3 CubeSats aboard reached 180 km (111.8 miles/590,551 ft)Jiuquan (China)Success
09/07/18OS-X-1Flight test by OneSpace; reached 35 km (18.6 miles/114,829 ft)Jiuquan (China)Success
11/28/18KSLV-2 Pilot VehicleFlight test by Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI); reached 209 km (129.9 miles/685,696 ft)Naro (South Korea)Success
11/29/18Rocket TwoFlight test by Astra Space; rocket suffered  catastrophic engine failurePacific Spaceport Complex — AlaskaFailure
12/13/18VSS Unity (SpaceShipTwo)Flight test by Virgin Galactic; first SpaceSpaceTwo flight above 50 miles (80.4 km/264,000 ft); reached 82.7 km (51.4 miles/271,268 ft); carried 4 NASA sponsored experiments; crew received astronaut wingsMojave Air & Space Port (California)Success

Will 2019 Be the Year of Space Tourism?

The most dramatic suborbital flight occurred over the Mojave Desert on Dec. 13. After being dropped from WhiteKnightTwo, Virgin Galactic pilots C.J. Sturckow and Mark Stucky fired SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity’s hybrid engine for 60 seconds, reaching an altitude of 51.4 miles (82.7 km) and a speed of Mach 2.9.

SpaceShipTwo’s highest and fastest flight to date came on Unity’s fourth powered test, and the eighth powered test of the SpaceShipTwo program. (Unity’s predecessor, Enterprise, broke up in flight on its fourth powered flight on Oct. 31, 2014.)

In addition to the two pilots, Unity carried four microgravity payloads sponsored by NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program.

Richard Branson with the pilots of SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Chairman Richard Branson, who was at the Mojave Air and Space Port to witness the flight, immediately declared that Unity had reached space. During the 1960’s, the U.S. Air Force had set 50 miles (80.5 km) as the boundary of space when awarding astronaut wings to eight X-15 pilots.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it would award astronaut wings to Sturckow and Stucky. As a former NASA astronaut, Sturckow had already earned his astronaut wings piloting the space shuttle.

The spaceflight claim was not universally accepted. The Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), the keeper of aviation and space records, considers the Karman line  at 100 km (62.1 miles) to be the boundary of space.

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo’s first flight above 50 miles on Dec. 13, 2018. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

However, FAI recently announced that it is working with the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) to evaluate whether to lower the boundary to 80 km (49.7 miles). FAI said the decision came after the publication of new research questioning the Karman line boundary.

The flight capped 14 years of effort to fly above 50 miles (80.5 km) since Branson unveiled its plans for SpaceShipTwo in September 2004. Along the way, the program claimed the life of pilot Mike Alsbury in the crash of Enterprise and three engineers – Glenn May, Todd Ivens and Eric Blackwell – in a 2007 test stand explosion.

Virgin Galactic is planning additional SpaceShipTwo flight tests this year, including ones with employees in the six passenger seats. Commercial operations will be conducted from Spaceport America in New Mexico, where Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant. Branson plans to be on the first commercial flight.

About 600 people have signed up for flights at $200,000 or $250,000 per seat. (Virgin Galactic raised the price by $50,000 in 2013.) Branson said the cost of a ticket will rise for new ticket buyers, although he did not reveal by how much.

Two additional SpaceShipTwo vehicles and one WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane are under construction in Mojave. Officials estimated in December that the first new SpaceShipTwo would be completed about a year, with the second following about three months later.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

Virgin Galactic’s rival, Blue Origin, continued to make steady progress in 2018. The company flew its New Shepard vehicle for the eighth and ninth times, carrying experimental payloads and an instrumented dummy named Mannequin Skywalker above the Karman line. On each flight, the reusable booster and capsule landed safely back at the launch site in West Texas.

Blue Origin had scheduled an additional flight test in December. However, the launch was pushed into January by technical issues. The test could occur as early as tomorrow depending upon weather.

The company expects to begin flying passengers aboard New Shepard early this year. The first passengers will be test subjects. The company has yet to set a date for selling tickets to the public or announce a price for the 11-minute ride.

Chinese Startups Make Their Mark

A pair of Chinese startups, i-space and OneSpace, made their marks in the suborbital space sector in 2018.

i-space successfully launched its Hyperbola 1 suborbital booster twice in 2018. The company said the solid-fuel Hyperbola 1S rocket reached an altitude of 108 km (67.1 miles) after launch from Hainan Island on April 4.

The Hyperbola 1Z booster, launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Sept. 5, reached an altitude of 180 km (111.8 miles) on a flight that lasted 8 minutes 40 seconds. The rocket had three CubeSats aboard supplied by Chinese companies that parachuted back to Earth.

i-space is using the flights to test technologies for use in two orbital rockets it is developing. Hyperbola 1 is being designed to place payloads weighing 300 kg (661.4 lb) into low Earth orbit (LEO) and 150 kg (330.7 lb) into a 700-km (435-mile) high sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).

The planned Hyperbola 2 booster is a two-stage liquid fuel rocket that will be capable of lifting 1.9 metric tons (2.1 tons) into LEO. i-space plans to eventually make the rocket reusable.

The company completed a series A funding round in July that raised the total amount of capital raised in 2018 to 600 million yuan ($88.1 million).

OneSpace successfully flight tested its OS-X ocket twice last year. The 9-meter (29.5-ft) tall solid-fuel booster flew for the first time on May 17, reaching an altitude of 40 km (24.9 miles). The launch vehicle reached 35 km (18.6 miles) during a second flight from Jiuquan on Sept. 7.

The OS-X is a dedicated suborbital launch vehicle that can be used for microgravity experiments, scientific instruments and technology demonstrations.

OneSpace is using the suborbital OS-X flights to help develop a family of OS-M orbital boosters that will be able to launch 121 to 205 kg (267 to 452 lb) to LEO and 73 to 143 kg (161 to 315 lb) depending upon the orbit required.

In August, OneSpace completed a series B round of 300 million yuan ($44 million). The company has completed four rounds of funding totaling 800 million yuan ($117.5 million) to date.

OneSpace and i-space are part of a group of commercial launch startups in China. In October, LandSpace made the country’s first orbital launch attempt. The Zhuque 1 rocket successfully lifted off from Jiuquan, but a third stage anomaly ended the flight prematurely. The Weila-1 broadcast satellite was lost in China’s only launch failure in 39 attempts in 2018.

Other Flight Tests

On Nov. 28, South Korea successfully flew its KSLV-2 Test Launch Vehicle on its maiden suborbital flight. The booster’s engine burned for 151 seconds on a flight that reached an altitude of 209 km (129.9 miles).

The launch was a test of the first stage of the KSLV-2 orbital booster. The three-stage rocket is designed to place payloads weighing 1,500 kg (3,307 lb) into LEO. The first orbital test is expected in 2021.

In Japan, Interstellar Technologies is having less success with its suborbital launches. On June 30, the company’s MOMO-2 rocket came crashing back down four seconds after it lifted off from the launch pad from the Taiki Aerospace Research Field.

It was the second failure of the 10-meter (32.8-foot) tall rocket. On July 30, 2017, MOMO-1’s engine automatically shut down after controllers lost contact with the booster 66 seconds into the flight. The rocket reached an altitude of 20 km (12.4 miles).

Interstellar is using the suborbital launches to develop an orbital booster capable of launching small satellites into space. The company hopes to complete work on the rocket next year.

The California-based startup Astra Space also suffered setbacks last year. The secretive company launched the first stage of its Astra rocket twice from the Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska on Kodiak Island. Astra is a two-stage booster designed to launch 100 kg (220.5 lb) into LEO.

The FAA said the first launch on July 20 suffered a mishap in flight. The Alaska Aerospace Corporation, which runs the spaceport, reported that Astra Space was very pleased with the flight’s outcome despite the anomaly.

FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell said that all five engines of the booster failed during a second launch attempt on Nov. 29. Astra Space, which was previously known as Ventions LLC, has not commented on the flights or its launcher development program.

Exos Aerospace launched its SARGE reusable suborbital booster on Aug. 25 from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The rocket’s engine shut down prematurely only 38 seconds into the flight instead of the planned 62 to 65 seconds due to a failure of a GPS unit on board that was providing data to the ground.

As a result, SARGE reached an altitude of 28 km (17.4 miles) instead of the planned 80 km (49.7 miles). Exos Aerospace officials said they were pleased with flight despite the anomaly.

SARGE, which is derived from technology developed by the defunct Armadillo Aerospace, is designed to carry payloads weighing up to 50 kg (110.2 lb) above 100 km (62.1 miles).

Exos is using SARGE to develop technology for a reusable small satellite launcher named Jaguar. The new booster will also use software licensed from NASA’s Morpheus lander technology demonstration program.

Flight Tests by Launch Site

U.S. facilities hosted nine of the 15 suborbital flight tests conducted last year. Four flights were conducted in China and one apiece in South Korea and Japan.

SUBORBITAL VEHICLE FLIGHT TESTS BY LAUNCH SITE, 2018
LAUNCH SITENATION
SUCCESSES
FAILURESPARTIAL FAILURES
TOTALS
Mojave Air & Space Port (California)USA4*004
Corn Ranch (Texas)USA2002
Jiuquan Satellite Launch CenterChina2002
Pacific Spaceport Complex — AlaskaUSA0202
AxlaChina1001
Hainan IslandChina1001
Naro Space CenterSouth Korea1001
Spaceport America (New Mexico)USA0011
Taiki Aerospace Research FieldJapan0101
TOTALS:113115
*Human flight tests of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity (SpaceShipTwo). Pilots on fourth flight awarded civilian astronaut wings by Federal Aviation Administration.

The Mojave Air and Space Port hosted four flight tests of VSS Unity. Using the lower definition of space of 50 miles (80.5 km), the High Desert spaceport hosted its first spaceflight in more than 14 years since SpaceShipOne launched for the last time on Oct. 4, 2004.

Blue Origin flew two successful New Shepard flights from its facility in West Texas, Astra Space suffered two failures in Alaska, and Exos Aerospace conducted a partially successful launch from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Chinese startups conducted four successful flights from three different launch sites. The use of government-owned Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center marked a milestone in the development of China’s commercial launch industry.

South Korea’s Naro Space Center and Japan’s Taiki Aerospace Research Field hosted one launch apiece in 2018.

Part 1: Suborbital Flights Stopped Being So Humdrum in 2018

  • Robert G. Oler

    Go virgin and bezos…bring it

  • ThomasLMatula

    And now 2019 has started out well with a perfect flight for New Shepard. Congratulations to Blue Origins.