Space travel: the future
As summer approaches, you’re no doubt already mentally planning your holiday as you slave over a hot keyboard. Tenerife. Miami. What about Venus? Maybe that’s a bit too hot – plus it’d be a pretty long journey.
Space tourism has been something us humans have dreamed of for generations. Travelling around the planets in our solar system and even jetting off to distant stars is something that’s inspired everything from blockbuster movies to acclaimed works of literature.
But it’s now been 45 years since man walked on the moon – and we’ve yet to set foot on any other extra-terrestrial terrain. It’s not for want of trying, though. Richard Branson has been working determinedly on launching the first successful commercial spaceline for more than a decade. Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004, and while Branson was hopeful of the maiden flight taking place in 2009, it’s eight years on and yet to happen (although he recently announced new plans to launch his spaceplane next year).
Right now, it feels as though our dreams of galactic vacationing will remain just that – dreams. Unless a group of University of Manchester students prove us all wrong, that is.
Driven by a desire to build the world’s first successful spaceplane, a team of physics and aeronautical engineering students formed Vanguard Advanced Systems. They now aim to set the course of space travel in the UK and beyond. And they’re doing it all while studying full time.
Vanguard is led by postgraduate Adriano Parisi, who came up with the potential engine design while studying for his Physics degree. His own research led him to the conclusion that the reason a successful spaceplane has never been conceived is that no one’s designed a suitable engine yet. Using the knowledge gained in his degree, Parisi came up with the adaptive propulsion HERA engine that will take the team’s aircraft to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). He then launched a recruitment drive to bring Manchester’s best mechanical and aerospace engineers on board, and Vanguard Advanced Systems was born.
“It has been a massive challenge [to get the project going], especially at the minute while I am doing my final exams, but our drive and determination is real and so is this project,” Parisi explains. “We are fully committed to making our spaceplane a reality. We understand it is an ambitious target, but that is what drives us forward.” The team hopes that Vanguard will become a full-time commitment following graduation. To keep the project going, they have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds they need.
Space clean up
In addition to Parisi’s HERA engine, the team have come up with an experimental fully reusable single-stage-to-orbit Athena-class aircraft that will have three purposes: satellite deployment, microgravity experiments and space debris collection and recycling.
Parisi believes Vanguard’s creation is different from the spaceplane projects that have come before, because the engine is so adaptable. It’s made up of both new and proven technologies (hence its name: Hera was the Greek goddess of marriage, and Vanguard see their engine design as a marriage of past and present technology).
“[Our spaceplane is] capable of operating at maximum efficiency at any altitude from sea level to vacuum and at a range of speeds from stationary to Mach 25+,” says Parisi. “This maximum efficiency is driven by the aerospike nozzle we are using for the engine. This nozzle can optimise the exhaust to make the engine as efficient as possible no matter the altitude.” In contrast, a typical rocket nozzle must be optimised for a specific altitude, which means it isn’t as efficient at sea level or in the vacuum of space.
Unlike a rocket, the spaceplane will be able to take off from a conventional runway – just like a regular passenger aeroplane. The HERA engine will then allow it to climb to a distance of 25km, reaching a speed of 3,850mph. Once there, the plane will cruise until it reaches the optimum position to engage the engine’s aerospikes, which will propel it to an altitude of 150km. It will then enter LEO.
Upon completion of its mission, the craft will reduce its speed by performing a deorbit burn before returning to the Earth’s atmosphere. The HERA engines will be restarted when the aircraft reaches its cruising altitude and it will land on the runway from which it took off.
To boldly go
But before you start packing your case for a trip to the edge of the galaxy; Parisi believes that space tourism is not the priority right now. Currently, the only way to conduct long-term microgravity experiments is on board the International Space Station, which is in high demand and has a long wait list. The Vanguard aircraft could provide an alternative option, as it can host experiments on board that researchers can monitor in real-time from the ground.
And then there’s the problem of space debris. Most rocket launches result in parts being lost and left behind, which could be hazardous for future missions. Not only would the Vanguard craft provide a means to collect some of this debris, but it won’t also add to the problem as it has no need to jettison hardware.
So, does Parisi think his aircraft design will ever carry passengers on a space adventure? “Space travel is very dangerous, and we would prefer to perfect spaceplane technology through launches that don’t put people’s lives at risk,” he explains. “Once the technology is at a level where human travel is possible, we would look into commercial travel as another use.”
But Parisi adds that, because the structural integrity of the spaceplane must come first, he couldn’t guarantee every passenger a window seat on their trip. So, you might have to keep using your imagination a little while longer.
Words – Hayley Cox