March 17, 2008

EADS Moves Forward With Vehicles for Space Tourism

European aerospace giant EADS says it will require a production line of rocket planes to meet demand for the space tourism market. The company's Astrium division, which makes the Ariene rocket, has plans to make commercial vehicles for consumer flights to altitudes of over 100km (62 miles).

Astrium does not plan to run a space tourism operation itself, but would supply vehicles to those who will.  The company anticipates it be would produce about 10 planes a year that would seat five individuals each - one pilot and four passengers.

A market assessment performed by the company indicates 15,000 people each year would spend $312,000 for the ride of their lives.

"To satisfy the market you will need more planes than you think, because once there is regular operation, the price will decrease which means there will be more customers," said Robert Laine, chief technical officer (CTO) of EADS, in a BBC News interview.

"It will develop towards a classical aeronautical business model. Someone will build the planes; somebody will operate them; somebody will sell the tickets; somebody will provide the accommodation - like any tourism."

Laine was in London delivering the 99th Kelvin Lecture at the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

He said development of Astrium's rocket plane was proceeding swiftly, and although production numbers will not be as high as Boeing or Airbus, they will be significant nonetheless.

Indeed, the company is making progress toward its goals.  The vehicle's aerodynamic shape has been proven out in wind tunnel tests, and its Romeo rocket engines that will power the craft to altitudes of over 100km (62 miles) has already been ignited in burns that have run up to 31 seconds.

The engine will use liquid oxygen-methane propellant combustion to provide the over 1km/s punch required to break through the Earth's atmosphere. About 50% of the vehicle's mass at take off would consist of fuel.

The production model will use normal jet engines for take off and ascent to 12km.

At that point, the rocket engine will boost the vehicle straight up to over 60km within only 80 seconds.  By the time the rocket shuts down, the vehicle would have enough velocity to carry it above 100km, essentially in to space.

As the craft falls back to Earth, the pilot will control its altitude using small thrusters to keep the plane's belly flat to the Earth's surface.

"If you enter with the belly flat down then you expose a very large radius to the aerodynamic flux and that contains the temperature to an acceptable limit," explained Mr Laine.

"We calculate the temperature will be less than 100C on the surface of the wings."

Once the plane slows to subsonic speed in the atmosphere, it will utilize its jet engines to return to the airport after a total journey of about 90 minutes.

Mr Laine said the planes are designed for ease of maintenance, and would have about a 10-year lifetime assuming an operational schedule of one flight per week.

Although the rocket planes could take off and land from any airport, Astrium anticipates that such flights would occur at special spaceports that would operate in a few, restricted locations.  Mr. Laine said he could envision possibly 10 of these spaceports worldwide.

He speculated that Northern Europe probably would not host a spaceport because of the high density of other air traffic in the area and because of it's prevalent cloud cover that would often block the view of Earth.

"In Europe, I'd say the most likely location is around the Mediterranean. Why? Because there are blue skies most of the time, and because from 100km you can see mountains, the sea and the coast."

Mr Laine acknowledged that Sir Richard Branson, head of Virgin Group, would be first to market with its rocket planes based on the record-breaking SpaceShipOne concept. However, he remains confident his company's Astrium-backed business would be second, with a commercial service that began exactly five years after the agreement of a one-billion-euro financing agreement. Laine even hopes Sir Richard might be an Astrium customer, in the same way his airline business is a customer of the EADS Airbus division.

Mr. Laine would not disclose details about when the initial financing would be in place, or identify the parties involved in the discussion.

Long-term, Mr. Laine believes space tourism will play a key role in reducing the overall cost of space access.  For example, he envisions rocket planes being used for homeland security purposes as "quick satellites", and perhaps as  forerunners to ultra-fast intercontinental passenger transporters.

"Today we don't know how to go to space cheaply. Being able to climb on a regular basis to 100km will give us the motivation to develop the plane that goes, not just up and down to the same place, but from here to the other side of the Earth.

"When the Ariane 5 takes off, 15 minutes later it is over Europe; and 45 minutes later it is over the Pacific. The fastest way is to go outside the atmosphere and that will be the future."


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