UCF science getting more time in zero-G with Virgin Galactic --and soon Virgin Orbit

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo set for liftoff this weekend

Virgin Galactic's mothership plane and SpaceShipTwo in the hangar in New Mexico. (Image: Virgin Galactic) (WKMG 2020)

ORLANDO, Fla. – The avenues to send science into a space-like environment is increasing as the number of small launch companies continue to grow.

This weekend the University of Central Florida will have a payload flying in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and then as soon as next week another research experiment flying as part of a NASA mission with Virgin Orbit’s Launcher One.

UCF planetary scientist Josh Colwell was in New Mexico this week waiting for his research project Collisions Into Dust Experiment, known as COLLIDE, to take a quick trip into low-Earth orbit inside the private spaceplane SpaceShipTwo. Colwell and UCF planetary scientist Addie Dove are co-investigators on the project that has previously flown twice with Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo will be carried by plane or “mothership” called VMS Eve taking off from New Mexico’s spaceport. With two pilots onboard, this will mark the first human spaceflight from New Mexico. The flight window opened Friday. Virgin is targeting no earlier than Saturday for take off.

The whole UCF experiment, part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, fits into a container about the size of the microwave but has much larger implications.

“The experiment that we’re doing is to really better understand what happens on the surfaces are very small objects called asteroids, that are leftover building blocks from the formation of the solar system,” Colwell said. “And they’re also interesting, not just for their scientific value, but also as a potential resource for future space mining activities.”

Space mining is the idea to use moons, asteroids and other resources from space to provide resources for missions already in orbit such as fuel and water for astronauts.

“You can get potentially oxygen and hydrogen out of them and fill up tanks of oxygen and hydrogen that a spaceship could use to refuel and that would potentially make space travel much more economical and much easier,” Colwell said.

COLLIDE looks at how the surfaces of simulated asteroid material reacts when its “poked and prodded,” explains Colwell, similar to how other robotic missions might to collect such resources in the future.

“There’s sort of a practical aspect to understanding what our robotic spacecraft and potentially future human explorers going to encounter when they get there,” he said of small bodies like asteroids.

In order to get find out how asteroid surface will really respond the experiment needs weightless conditions. Virgin Galactic Pilots Dave Mackay and CJ Sturckow plan to pitch SpaceShipTwo 270 degrees following the engine boost to give the payloads more time in the low-gravity environment.

The whole experiment will be over in a few short minutes and soon after Colwell and his colleagues will have the data in hand to review.

Virgin Galactic is getting ready to fly paying customers on SpaceShipTwo, hopefully next year. Colwell got a chance to look inside the sleek spaceplane which can be customized to carry payloads and people.

“They have locations where there’s a seat for a passenger, but they remove the entire seat, and then they put in an experiment rack, basically,” he said. “So there can be a stack of experiments, or there can be a seat.”

Between SpaceShipTwo and rides with Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spacecraft its been a busy few years sending science into low-gravity for UCF. However, as soon as next week the university will have another payload headed to space but this one will orbit the Earth for years.

Virgin Orbit, a sister Virgin company, is set to launch its first operational mission which includes science selected by NASA, including UCF’s Q-PACE small satellite.

“It’s a very different kind of undertaking,” Colwell said of Q-PACE. “It’s its own self contained spacecraft doing experiments on the early stages of planet formation, and also evolution of planetary ring systems like Saturn’s rings.”

Virgin Orbit operates a plane assisted small launcher called LauncherOne. Using a former commercial Boeing 747 nicknamed Cosmic Girl the rocket is carried under the belly of the plane before it drops and launches.

Q-PACE is another small payload with mighty research goals: to help scientists understand how planets formed.

Virgin Orbit is targeting launch before the end of the year.

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