Planetary scientist Alan Stern will be one of the first explorers to fly in space aboard a future flight of the Virgin Galactic tourist spacecraft. Stern will observe two different experiments while on board the flight, each of which is designed to take advantage of a short stay in space.
The Virgin Galactic car, SpaceShipTwo, is designed to take customers high above the Earth to taste the weightlessness. The company has previously flown into space, both humans and research experiments. But the company has not yet conducted any real-world vehicle research. All research payloads that have flown on SpaceShipTwo so far are automated. Most of this research is funded and organized by NASA, which prevents researchers from flying with their experiments.
But in January, NASA announced that it would begin accepting offers from scientists outside the agency who are interested in flying, along with their work, commercial rocket launchers to space. Only two options are currently being developed for this type of flight: Virgin Galactic̵
Stern, associate vice president of the Space Science and Technology Division of the Southwestern Research Institute (SwRI), has made it clear that he is eager to seize the opportunity as early as March. “Our job is to respond to this call for proposals and flood them with good ideas to show them how much interest there is, how much of an impact that can have,” he told a conference for next-generation researchers in Colorado. , according to Space news. Also known as the lead researcher on NASA’s mission to Pluto, Stern is a staunch defender of researchers who can fly with their experiments on suborbital flights.
“It was both extremely enjoyable and humiliating,” says Stern On the edge to understand that his proposal was accepted. “And when I realized yesterday that this was the only proposal they accepted, it meant even more, and the responsibility was even greater to do a good job.”
Stern will work on two experiments while in the Virgin Galactic flight. One will involve working with a low-light camera once used on the space shuttle to see how well scientists can observe stars and other objects in space through the windows of SpaceShipTwo. Different windows may have different lighting conditions relative to the sun. “My job is to deploy this experiment and take it to three different windows or more during the zero-gravity flight before I have to go back and lock in,” Stern said. It will also carry various sensors that will monitor its vital signs from just before boarding the spacecraft to after landing.
To reach space, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is carried at an altitude of about 35,000 feet, under the wing of a giant twin-fuselage. Once it reaches the correct altitude, the spacecraft releases and ignites its main engine. The vehicle then climbs to an altitude of about 55 miles, reaching an area of the atmosphere that many consider the beginning of space. The vehicle then shifts its wings and returns to the Earth’s atmosphere, eventually gliding to a stop on the runway.
Stern’s flight on SpaceShipTwo is yet to be scheduled, but he says he will spend time training on the eve of the flight. “We will plan every moment of it and what to do in unforeseen situations,” says Stern. “And then train. Much of the training will not be with Virgin. It will be on zero G planes, high-performance jets – the things I already did, but now just get ready. “
In the meantime, it’s been a while since Virgin Galactic actually reached space. The company’s last test flight took place in February 2019. Since then, Virgin Galactic has moved from its test facilities in Mojave, California, to the company’s permanent home on a spaceport in the New Mexico desert. Virgin Galactic said today that it is preparing for its first space flight from New Mexico, which “will happen later this fall.”
When Virgin Galactic finally restarts, Stern says he will be watching closely. “I will probably drive to New Mexico, which is a neighboring country [of Colorado]and go see this flight, ”he says.
Updated October 14, 4:20 PM ET: This article has been updated to include an interview with Alan Stern.