By Michael Mecham Palo Alto, Calif. –
Virgin Galactic will be able to offer the potential of a “seamless” transition for scientists doing long-term microgravity experiments on the International Space Station and short-term suborbital flights aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo under an agreement with NanoRacks.
The accord, outlined Feb. 27 at the 2012 Next Generation Research Conference here, will offer researchers the option to have a researcher fly with their experiment or for it to be fully automated, says Virgin Galactic Vice President William Pomerantz, head of special projects.
The racks will share the same size and interface characteristics as Mid-Deck racks on the space station to ease planning requirements for researchers. Pomerantz says pricing has not been set, but adds that it will be proportional to the charge for flying a human on SpaceShipTwo, which is $200,000.
As for that, Virgin Galactic has passed the 500-customer list and is closing in on the 525 figure that he says represents the total number of astronauts flown by the U.S. and Russia.
A typical Nanorack mission will carry experiments with a total weight of 1,300 lb., plus the researcher, Pomerantz says. Automated racks would be able to hold about another 200 lb. Standard racks have 108 cubic ft. and offer “several minutes” of microgravity.
SpaceShipTwo is currently undergoing NASA flight safety reviews. Its first test flight is set for later this year, but officials are not offering a more specific schedule.
NanoRacks has modified the space shuttle mid-deck racks to retain the same capacity for Virgin Galactic while reducing weight to make them appropriate for suborbital flights, says Senior Vice President/Business Development Rich Pournelle.
The company has accumulated more than 30 customers, some with multiyear deals, since it was formed two years ago. It has a backlog of more than 60 racks, he says.
Some experiments can be as small as a test tube that an astronaut activates once in space and costs $8,000 on the space station. A standard 10 cm cube costs $30,000 for 30 days in orbit, all inclusive, Pournelle says.
The time from contract signing to flight has averaged nine months on the ISF.
Costs for equivalent suborbital flights on SpaveShipTwo will be proportionately lower, he says. But those prices have not yet been set.