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Space science on a budget

For decades, the cost of doing space science has been astronomically high, but all that will change when suborbital spacecraft start flying next year. Off-the-cuff calculations suggest doing low-cost research on commercial rocket ships could eventually amount to $100 million a year.

At least that's the way it adds up for Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute who is helping suborbital science get off the ground. During today's sesson of the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, N.M., Stern figured that private-sector spaceships could accommodate 1,000 small-scale research missions annually at $100,000 each.

The resulting total - $100 million a year - is roughly equivalent to the fares that would be paid out by 500 high-rolling passengers on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane. Those potential profits have led Stern to assert that research could be more of a "killer app" for suborbital space ventures than tourism.

But are those figures realistic? The price tag would be perfectly reasonable: Suborbital spaceships would offer the cheapest way to fly experiments at altitudes of 75 to 140 kilometers (45 to 87 miles). That takes in a region of Earth's environment that has been nicknamed the "ignorosphere" because it's too high for balloon-lofted experiments and too low for satellite probes.

It costs millions of dollars to send a sounding rocket to that region, so even a $500,000 price tag might look like a bargain to a researcher. That's how much XCOR Aerospace is planning to charge for deploying a 22-pound (10-kilogram) nanosatellite from its Lynx rocket plane, according to Andrew Nelson, the company's chief operating officer.

What about flying 1,000 missions a year? Stern said that flight rate was eminently achievable if companies such as XCOR, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin followed through on their rocketship plans. Blue Origin, which is backed by billionaire Jeff Bezos, has been secretive about its progress, but Stern said the venture was anticipating a flight rate that was "very high by any standard that we're used to."

Armadillo Aerospace, which is currently in the lead to win $1 million of NASA's money in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, has already committed to flying shoebox-sized physics experiments on unmanned test rockets for free, Purdue professor Steven Collicott pointed out. And NASA plans to set aside $1 million to $2 million for similar suborbital experiments in its budget proposal for fiscal 2011, said Yvonne Cagle, program manager for the space agency's Commercial Suborbital Research Program.

If the plan goes through, NASA experiments could be flying on private-sector rocketships as early as this time next year, she told me.

But is there enough science to support doing 1,000 missions a year? A panel of researchers laid out a long list of potential study subjects:

  • Dust particle collisions in zero-G. Such studies could help explain how the rings around Saturn and other planets were formed and why they endure.
  • Observations of astronomical objects in wavelengths that are filtered out by Earth's atmosphere and thus can't be seen by ground-based telescopes.
  • Behavior of fluids and grains in microgravity on time scales that are longer than what can be achieved during zero-G airplane flightrs. Such studies could help physicists understand how earthquakes shake up soil.
  • Studies of how organisms ranging from microbes to men and women are affected by the first few minutes of zero-G conditions. Such studies aren't done on shuttle astronauts because they're occupied with the ascent to orbit - but the studies could suggest ways to combat the "space sickness" experienced by half of all astronauts.
  • Space studies involving radiation sources, free-flying insects, pathogens and other materials that are usually not allowed on the space shuttle.
  • Close-up studies of atmospheric phenomena in the "ignorosphere" - such as polar mesospheric clouds, which some scientists consider a harbinger of global climate change.

The most serious limiting factor may well be the imaginations of scientists who have not yet realized that new opportunities are coming up. When Stern asked attendees in Las Cruces to indicate whether they could have an experiment ready to fly on a suborbital spaceship in the next year, all of the scientists on stage (including Stern) raised their hands. Hardly any hands went up in the audience.

To get the word out, Stern is planning a suborbital science conference in February - a meeting designed to bring researchers together with potential funders and fliers. As time goes on, the tools of microgravity research should become increasingly available to all comers.

The bottom line? When it comes to space science, NASA isn't by any means the only game in town, Collicott said.

"A low-gravity laboratory is becoming more like a mass spectrometer," he told his colleagues. "You buy mass spectrometers from different places, with different agencies' funding. You buy oscilloscopes from different places, on different agencies' funding.

"Microgravity, as a research environment, is now becoming something that's going to be available to anybody with the money - for any purpose, be it pleasure, research, industry or what have you - from a number of sources," Collicott said. "We need to stop thinking about microgravity research as being solely a NASA topic."  

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