Extropy +16: Space (Research) Tourism

Mar 1st, 2011 by adminadam in home

Space Tourism for Scientists

The New York Times ran an article yesterday on space tourism for scientists and scientific purposes:

“If all goes as planned, within a couple of years, tourists will be rocketing into space aboard a Virgin Galactic space plane — paying $200,000 for about four minutes of weightlessness — before coming back down for a landing on a New Mexico runway.

Sitting in the next seat could be a scientist working on a research experiment.

Science, perhaps even more than tourism, could turn out to be big business for Virgin and other companies that are aiming to provide short rides above the 62-mile altitude that marks the official entry into outer space, eventually on a daily basis.”

Why (and Can’t I Get a Better Price)?

Xcor Aerospace has offered the lowest ticket prices at $95,000 a person, which makes it reasonable (or at least a bit more reasonable) for scientific research budgets. I personally like pondering the outcomes of regular short-interval experiments being done in low-earth orbit, in addition to the falling prices after the practice has been established well enough.

So, what is the draw for the scientific community over such short trips? One slashdot user (Nyeerrmm) had the following to say and mentioned metallurgy and composite materials experiments, and equipment testing for later installation into the International Space Station:

“…There are some metallurgy applications. You can make some alloys out of otherwise immiscible metals. Melt them on the ground, stir quickly at the start of the free fall period and quench the mix.

There’s also some composite materials that consist of a metal and gaseous component. For example, you might have some sort of hollow beads with a metal binder. The radical density differences make this a hard material to build in normal Earth environment. Or you might be trying to make a solid metallic foam.

Another zero gee favorite is large protein crystals (for crystallography). The five minute period might be enough to create fairly large and relatively flawless crystals in some cases.

There’s one final reason even when zero gee processes take much longer than five minutes. It’s a cheap way to test the equipment before you put it in a really expensive environment.

For example, if you have a kit for making proteins in a week, it would suck to put that on the ISS and find out that you have a horde of technical problems that need to worked out by very expensive astronauts. Even five minutes is enough to get the gear running and find problems that manifest quickly.”

Any Takers?

The biggest researcher so far looks to be Southwest Research Institute, who specialize in chemistry, space science, mechanical engineering, and a number of other fields. Southwest plans to study how soil and rocks settle on the surface of asteroids, in addition to testing a refurbished ultraviolet telescope from 1997 and trying out a biomedical harness that monitors scientists’ vitals during space flight. Let’s wish them luck so that other potential early adopters may also be encouraged to join in on these new space research endeavors.

According to the Times, “even if only some of these companies succeed, the prospect is that in a few years, hundreds of suborbital flights could be taking off every year”. Wouldn’t that be cool…


NY Times article: Space Tourism May Mean One Giant Leap for Researchers
Slashdot discussion: Scientists, Not Just Tourists Are Getting Tickets to Ride Into Space

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