Mark Cantrell, Author

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Science: Students Plan To Be Wright Brothers In Space

Posted by Mark Cantrell on June 5, 2017 at 4:55 PM

Forget blast off, spread your wings and fly 

A bunch of students – that's right students – from the University of Manchester are aiming to become the Wright Brothers of space with the world's first working spaceplane, writes Mark Cantrell

THE dream of spaceflight reaches high, whether that's to Mars or the stars, but to get off the ground we still rely on the brute force of rocketry to climb up the gravity well and reach that essential baby step to the final frontier – Earth orbit.

Imagine, then, if a craft was able to use aerospace engines to fly to high altitude, like any conventional aircraft, and then switch to a rocker motor to boost the vehicle out of the atmosphere and into orbital space. Such a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) aircraft would revolutionise spaceflight, particularly when it comes to the delivery of payloads such as satellites into orbit.

Well, a team of students from the University of Manchester are aiming to do more than just imagine a spaceplane – they aim to design and build one. They're not the first to try, of course; back in the 1980s, for instance, a team of British engineers were working on HOTOL, but the project never got off the ground.

The Manchester team of physics and aeronautical engineering students, led by Masters student Adriano Parisi as Managing Director, have established a start-up company, Vanguard Advanced Systems (VAS) to push their design. They've already devised the concept for the engine and a design for the aircraft. The latter is based on an Athena-class aircraft.

Now the Vanguard crew are looking to raise the funds and investment they need to turn the concept into reality – they hope.

As the name suggests, a spaceplane combines the features of a traditional aeroplane with the ability of space flight. As a plane it can also land at airports in cities, arguably making space “easily accessible and extremely cheap for commercial purposes”. If successful, the development of a fully reusable spaceplane could redefine space access.

So what makes Vanguard's designs different to other spaceplane projects past and present, such as HOTOL?

“In layman terms our engine consists of both proven and new technologies in a novel combination, resulting in a more efficient and versatile propulsion system,” Parisi said. “Our current design uses existing technology, but makes it more compact and more efficient than conventional rockets.”

The intention is to use the spaceplane for three specific mission types: deploying satellites, microgravity experiments, and space debris clean-up and recycling. But to maximise the spaceplane's reusability and efficiency it wouldn’t transport traditional satellites. Instead, Parisi wants to pioneer the use of CubeSat, a specialist type of miniaturised satellite used for space research, which is cheap and multi-purpose.

“We aim to make our spaceplane a dedicated CubeSat launcher, dramatically reducing the cost of launching a CubeSat into low Earth orbit (LEO),” he said. “This will allow smaller organisations to launch their own satellites for a fraction of the current cost. This would make affordable space access a reality for the space industry, including universities, research institutions, government agencies, and commercial companies.”

The smaller satellites will also help reduce the increasing amount of space debris in orbit around the Earth, a growing problem for current and future space exploration. The problem is becoming so acute that the European Space Agency (ESA) has identified it as an urgent problem for the space industry.

“Our spaceplane could be the first craft capable of solving this problem,” Parisi said. “With the use of a mechanical arm and CubeSats, it would be able to collect the debris and recycle expensive equipment, or cause it to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.”

The Vanguard team's long-term plan is to put their aircraft into space for approximately £5 million per launch. A lot of money, for sure, but it's peanuts in space industry terms. The average cost of putting NASA’s space shuttle into space was around £450 million for every single journey. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s SpaceX reusable rockets average £50 million per launch.

Parisi's current team has expertise from across different disciplines within the university, including physics, mathematics, and aerospace and mechanical engineering. They're the kind of specialisms that are clearly useful for any cutting-edge voyage into the frontiers of space technology, but here's the thing –just to kick a little extra sand in the faces of we laymen – they're still students.

“It has been a massive challenge, especially at the minute, whilst I am doing my final exams,” Parisi said. “But our drive and determination is real and so is this project. We are fully committed to making our spaceplane a reality. We understand it is an ambitious target, but that is what drives us forward.”

But will they fly it themselves? That's the question...





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