Billionaire entrepreneur Richard branson and his team successfully flew to the “edge of space” on the Unity 22 mission aboard a Galactic Virgo the plane on July 12. The event was hailed as the start of space tourism, narrowly beating the launch scheduled for July 20 by another billionaire business tycoon Jeff Bezos and his company Blue Origin.
But does the 85 km (53 miles) altitude of the recent Virgin Galactic flight really count as space? And what are these companies likely to achieve in the future?
The definition of where space begins is very subjective. The KÃ¡rmÃ¡n line is a distance 100km (62 miles), determined in 1957. This line was adopted by the FÃ©dÃ©ration AÃ©ronautique Internationale (FÃ©dÃ©ration AÃ©ronautique Internationale) to determine whether an activity is aeronautical or astronautical.
Alternatively, the US Air Force and NASA determine their border at 80 km (50 miles), where military personnel obtain their “astronaut wings”. This altitude was reached by a number of specialized aircraft whose X-15 and in particular private financing SpaceShipOne, reaching 112 km (70 miles) – well above VSS Unity’s current achievement. Blue Origin’s launch is targeting 106 km (66 miles).
While this altitude allows for excellent views of the Earth, it is not an orbit. To orbit at this altitude, you must travel at a minimum speed of 7.85 km / s (17,500 mph) in the horizontal direction. Unity was just an acceleration up, then a controlled descent. It’s relatively simple to do, but it’s significantly more difficult, both in terms of energy and engineering, to turn this into orbit.
The definition of the edge of space is not trivial. Space is not where you feel weightless, as this can be achieved for short periods of time in specialized drop chambers or on parabolic flights. And despite the tweet from Virgin Galactic indicating that the crew was in zero gravity, the gravitational pull was about 9.5 meters per square second, or about 97% of that at the surface. The weightlessness felt is purely due to a prolonged free fall.
The first billionaire in space has excited some, estimating that they too could one day see Earth 85 km away if they can afford US $ 250,000 for an hour-long trip. However, public opinion has not unanimous, with many pointing out that the cost of the business could be used to eradicate poverty or help with the current pandemic response.
There is also the environmental impact. According to Virgin Galactic, a single flight on Unity results in a carbon emission of 1.2 tonnes – equivalent to a business class passenger on a London-New York round trip. Compared to aviation, it is small, but more these flights are regular more carbon will be added. Blue Origin engines, on the other hand, run on liquid hydrogen. While emissions are therefore minimal, the generation of liquid hydrogen and the carbon cost of transporting materials remain an issue.
Although Virgin Galactic has beaten Blue Origin to the fist, SpaceX is ahead of the two in terms of private space exploration. It focuses on launches to the International Space Station and much more adventurous space tourism, like a trip to the moon and back, which is definitely considered to go into space. SpaceX’s success rate, including the Crew Dragon 2 craft, means that his DearMoon project has a good chance of success, but not for a few years. The plan is to develop a new rocket, known as the Starship, to launch this first space tourism business.
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic is developing a supersonic passenger transport concept as a successor to the Concorde which could transport up to 19 people from Los Angeles to Sydney in less than seven hours. He also won a small contract with NASA do research on its flights.
Blue Origin also worked with NASA to develop a concept and technologies to support future human spaceflight operations. The current evolution is a robotic lunar lander concept dubbed Blue Moon, which seeks to deliver cargo – and possibly even crew – to the Moon. These projects will certainly bring more experience to companies, even if they are far from being completed or tested.
Sister company of Virgin Galactic Virgin orbit, a low-cost small satellite launch plan, is much more impressive. It’s already over two successful missions, deploying payloads in low earth orbit. This works similarly to Virgin Galactic by having the LauncherOne rockets attached to a carrier plane (Cosmic girl) and firing at an altitude of 10 km. This is a good alternative for launching small, lightweight satellites around 500 km, so they don’t have to wait for an opening on larger rockets.
Branson made his lifelong dream come true, and Bezos and passengers are about to go a little higher, but for the vast majority of people who will never have the opportunity to experience such a flight, it doesn’t matter. No new records have been broken and no new technology has been tested. The real excitement will come when these companies are able to reach orbit, ready to test new technologies, to significantly aid scientific research, and to open their doors to more people who are not very wealthy.