The new – suborbital – frontier

View of atmosphere from space
7 December 2010

ESA is looking for new ways to conduct interesting research in space, on Earth – and in between.

A number of commercial suborbital vehicles are being considered in Europe, and ESA is looking at the possibilities they might offer for microgravity research. If you think you could help, then we would be pleased to hear from you.

‘Suborbital’ means the vehicle reaches space but does not have the much greater speed required to enter orbit. Even so, the flights provide some 4 minutes of weightlessness.

The main drivers for this new kind of vehicle are tourism and other commercial uses, but the craft may also offer a platform for scientific studies and to prepare experiments for the International Space Station (ISS).

Several commercial suborbital spacecraft are being developed by industrial consortia supported by private investors, and ESA is now asking for more information.

Half way to ISS

ISS photographed by an STS-130 crew member
Space Station is an unique laboratory

The ISS is nearly complete and has long been serving as a laboratory for science and technology. It is the core element of ESA’s microgravity research because it offers a unique environment and resources for experiments.

The Station is also serving an increasingly broad range of scientific disciplines, from Earth sciences to astronomy, from biology to fundamental physics, and from technology to human psychology – to name but a few.

The ISS is at the top of a pyramid of increasingly capable platforms available for scientific experiments. Drop towers provide several seconds of microgravity, aircraft on parabolic flights offer 20 seconds and sounding rockets extend this up to 15 minutes.

Suborbital flights could be an interesting bridge between the parabolic flights and sounding rockets by combining the best aspects of the both.

Request for information

Experiment during the 46th Parabolic Flight Campaign
Experiment aboard a parabolic flight

ESA is issuing this ‘Request for Information on Commercial Suborbital Human Flight Vehicles’ to gather information about craft in development in order to analyse the characteristics and possibilities of these emerging projects.

“It is the first time that Europe embarks in this kind of inquiry”, explains Simonetta Di Pippo, ESA Director of Human Spaceflight. “We see this as yet another valuable opportunity to expand the scientific endeavours in space and to promote future exploration missions”.

The requested information includes:

  • what are their characteristics?
  • what capabilities and opportunities do they offer for microgravity science?
  • what requirements do they impose on the payloads?
  • what requirements do they adopt for the crew?
  • what are their schedules and costs?

The call is aimed at all European entities involved in the development or commercialisation of suborbital manned vehicles. Responses are requested by 15 February.

For more information, please contact:

Philippe Berthe
ESA Directorate of Human Spaceflight
Transportation and Reentry System Division
Tel: +31 71 565 5694
Email: suborbital.hsf@esa.int

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