Motorcycle messengers to outer space

A small private company is getting ready to deliver packages to the final frontier. Peter Bond reports

Next week should see the culmination of one of the most prolonged sagas in space history when a Conestoga rocket blasts off from Wallops Island, Virginia. It will not have the drama or the attendant high publicity of a Nasa space shuttle launch, but it may be more significant in the long run than any shuttle mission.

Over the past half-century, the creeks and mudflats of eastern Virginia have reverberated with the sound of rocket launches thousands of times. The difference is that this is the first private-enterprise, commercial space launch in the US, from the purpose-built launch pad to the privately financed and developed rocket and payload.

Installed in the nose of the rocket will be a small scientific satellite known as Meteor (Multiple Experiment Transporter to Earth Orbit). Nine and a half minutes after launch, the spacecraft will be deployed 200 miles (320km) above the earth into an orbit that carries it 40 degrees north and south of the equator.

The driving force behind this enterprise is a small Maryland-based company called EER Systems. Its faith and financial commitment to the project ensured that Meteor would not flop. During the early Nineties, the mission seemed secure when Nasa's Office of Commercial Programmes invested $85m (pounds 55m) in the project (then known as Comet - Commercial Experiment Transporter). However, when a succession of financial and technical problems caused the government agency to pull out, it looked as though the mission would never leave the ground.

Despite doubts and delays, EER's spokesman, Mike Bryant, is upbeat about Meteor's prospects. "We look at it as a complete space transportation system, the first of its kind made available in America," he says. "We can provide a service to Nasa no different to them contracting with Federal Express to send packages into space - particularly small, experimental packages that need longer time in space than a shuttle flight and don't need to be crew-tended."

One important EER investment has been the building of the Conestoga Launch Complex at Wallops Field, America's first launch facility designed primarily for commercial missions. It consists of a portable service tower, a vertical launch mount and a concrete launch pad.

The most innovative aspect of the mission is the payload, a dual spacecraft comprising an orbiter and a return capsule. Satellites equipped with recoverable capsules have been used many times by the former Soviet Union and by China, but they have largely been ignored in the West - an oversight that Meteor's designers intend to rectify.

Both sections of the one-ton spacecraft have been designed and built by small private companies. The largest section is the service module, now bought by EER, which controls temperature, altitude, power generation, telemetry and data processing. Its unpressurised interior can also be packed with scientific experiments, allowing it to operate as an independent space laboratory. Its designers expect the module to transmit a stream of experimental data to scientists on the ground for one to two years. Eventually, its orbit will decay, causing the craft to burn up during re-entry.

The recovery module can carry up to 300lb (135kg) of experiments inside a pressurised cylindrical container. After orbiting Earth for about a month, it will separate from the service module for the return to Earth. Protected by a heat shield, it will plunge into the atmosphere until, at about 60,000ft, air-pressure monitors ("barometric switches") will turn on the recovery sequence.

A drogue parachute, followed by a 60ft- diameter main chute, will unfurl to allow the capsule to plop gently into the Atlantic Ocean 100 miles east of the launch site. If all goes to plan, a Coast Guard cutter will locate the module before calling in a Navy recovery helicopter. Within six hours of splashdown, the completed experiments should be delivered to their owners back at Wallops Field.

Eight of the experiments are being sponsored by Nasa - five in the recovery module and three in the service module. One of these is an enclosed chamber that can sustain plants for a long period of time. Another involves an automated miniature laboratory that can process samples used in cancer research and other biomedical studies. Some of these microgravity investigations have been provided by the agency's Centres for the Commercial Development of Space, non-profit consortia consisting of industry, higher education and governments, set up to conduct hi-tech research. The remaining three payloads are purely commercial. They include an experimental solar power system, samples of different materials exposed to atomic oxygen in space, and a secret payload provided by Motorola.

EER is launching its Conestoga 1620 rocket at a time when several US manufacturers are competing for a slice of the newly emerging launch market for small satellites. But not only are their prices being undercut by decommissioned American and Russian ballistic missiles, their position has been further undermined by several launch mishaps in recent months.

On 22 June, the air-launched Pegasus-XI booster flopped for the second time in two launches. The result was the loss of an experimental US Air Force satellite and a lengthening launch queue, including four Nasa scientific satellites. Two months later, the maiden flight of the Lockheed Launch Vehicle came to an undignified end when it had to be destroyed following a booster failure. The manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, is hoping to get back on track by next June for the launch of two more innovative Nasa "smallsats" known as Lewis and Clark.

So far, the Conestoga has not been able to take advantage of this hiatus. A launch attempt on 13 August ended as a damp squib when two motors lost pressure, causing the countdown to be scrubbed with 90 seconds remaining. Like its competitors, the Conestoga relies on solid rocket motors built by the Thiokol Corporation. However, according to Mike Bryant, the Conestoga is more modular, and so more flexible, than its competitors. Various combinations of solid boosters can be assembled to carry different sizes of payload to low-Earth orbit. EER is promoting an entire family of Conestogas, ranging from the baby, which can lift 226kg, to the big daddy, capable of carrying more than two tons. The company is hoping a successful launch by the medium-lift 1620 version, which has seven strap-on boosters, will promote the advantages of the entire family.

So will Meteor become, as its name unfortunately suggests, a short-lived arrival on the commercial space scene that crashes and burns after just one flight? Or will it provide the flexible, low-cost microgravity missions that have so far been denied to small companies and academic institutions? The key will be how much commercial business the consortium can drum up in the months ahead. "We have a number of solid leads, and most of these are waiting to see how the vehicle performs," says EER's vice president, Jim Hengle.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksNow available in paperback
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Direct Sales Consultants - OTE £65,000 - £100,000

£65000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This national direct sales com...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Consultant - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Can you sell? Want to earn over...

Recruitment Genius: Partitioners / Carpenter / Multi Skilled Tradesmen / Decorator

£28000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Various opportunities are avail...

Recruitment Genius: Trade Marketing Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company leads the market i...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum