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Suborbital Launch Firms Make Steady Progress

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

July 30, 2012

Suborbital Launch Firms Make Steady Progress

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

While SpaceX (News - Alert) and Virgin Galactic have been getting all the headlines, a number of smaller companies involved in the suborbital space have been making steady progress outside the media spotlight. Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems and XCOR all announced news and milestones this month, with Armadillo getting a green light from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a profit-making launch.

At the Newspace 2012 event in Santa Clara, Calif., FAA Associate Administrator Dr. George Nield presented Armadillo with an Operator Launch License for its STIG (Suborbital Transport with Inertial Guidance) class of suborbital launch vehicles. The license enables Armadillo to launch payloads for "revenue service" in the words of the press release -- i.e., profit.  

Armadillo's STIG B rocket will carry two paying customers, Vega Space and the University of Perdue, and is expected to provide nearly three minutes of micro-G during the flight.

STIG B will be the first licensed launch from Spaceport America in New Mexico. If successful, it will fully qualify Armadillo to provide services for NASA's Flight Opportunities Program to fly scientific payloads that require little or no gravity for experimental purposes. NASA has currently has five suborbital reusable launch vehicles (sRLVs) in its online "catalog," with one vendor operational, two available for proposals, and three under development. Armadillo is currently "under development" and its flight would move it to the operational stage.

Masten Space Systems, one of the other companies "under development" in NASA's micro-G flight catalog, touted a successful test flight of its Xaero suborbital vertical takeoff/vertical landing (VTVL) rocket to 444 meters on July 3 and a simulated Mars landing profile for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) using its Xombie testbed on July 26. Both flights took place at the Mojave Spaceport in California, where Masten has its headquarters.

XCOR, maker and operator of the Lynx winged suborbital vehicle, released Lynx's Payload User's Guide (PUG) on its website. The documentation enables XCOR's payload integration partners, scientists and educators to prepare experiments for flight abort the Lynx vehicle. The two seat Lynx -- pilot and one passenger -- is designed to fly suborbital missions up to four time a day, taking off from a runway and going over 100 kilometers into the atmosphere for several minutes of micro-G before returning back to earth for a runway landing. XCOR anticipates the Lynx Mark II to go into flight service in 2014.

And municipalities want XCOR's business. Brevard County, Florida is providing around $180,000 in incentives to open a manufacturing and operations center at Kennedy Space Center. XCOR would use hanger and flight operations, vehicle manufacturing, rocket engine assembly and space tourism. The local money acts as a match for nearly $1 million of Florida state incentives to get businesses to relocate.

XCOR says it hopes to open up its KSC center in October 2014, creating 152 technical jobs over a five year period. It's a pretty big statement, since XCOR is also opening up a R&D facility at Texas Midland International Airport with an expected opening in late 2013. Adding Florida and Texas would mean XCOR would have the ability to conduct flight operations at four locations, including the Mojave Spaceport and the Caribbean island of Curacao.

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Edited by Brooke Neuman

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