Dassault Aviation finalising plans for suborbital spacecraft
French aerospace firm Dassault Aviation is close to finishing with its fact-finding report to create a manned suborbital spacecraft for civilians called the VSH. At this point, observers are a bit skeptical of it actually taking off, but w can hope the SpaceShipTwo sees a competitor!
Dassault Aviation is using the project as an opportunity to extend its aerospace activities to include an aircraft of the future. The VSH was developed from Dassault’s satellite launch vehicle project named VEHRA air-launched reusable hypersonic vehicle project and is based on NASA’s X-38 experimental lifting body, for which Dassault had done the shaping. The VSH project also draws from the European Space Agency’s work done in the 1990s on the presently-abandoned Hermes spaceplane.
The Dassault VSH suborbital vehicle will weigh 11 metric tons and be capable of carrying six passengers. It would be launched from the air by a commercial transport aircraft, a method similar to the launch of the VEHRA which is being designed and modified to place a 7 ton payload in a low orbit. The company revealed that the air-launch method was preferred as it did not involve the limitations present in the case of a classic ground launch. The requirements of an air-launch are limited to a slim line infrastructure on the ground. The mission can also be aborted in some cases and vehicle and payload recovery is also possible.
Once the Dassault VSH sets off from the ground on top of a commercial aircraft, it separates from the carrier aircraft once it reaches the 25,000 feet altitude, equivalent to 8 km above the ground. The process of separation that is patented, takes place at a flight speed of Mach 0.7. Then, the liquid oxygen-kerosene-powered engine of a rocket attached to the VSH carries the vehicle along a suborbital path to take it to an altitude of 100 km. This is very near to the space’s edge.
Passengers on board the VSH will be able to observe the Earth’s curvature and experience weightlessness for period of around three minutes. However, the company has maintained that the Dassault VSH will not be a space shuttle. It will be an aircraft with superior performance and a top flight speed of Mach 3.5. Its characteristics and features of operation will be based on the principles of aeronautics.
Research efforts into the VSH had begun in 2004. The concept was further refined in 2008 under the K-1000 project with financial support being provided by Dassault’s Switzerland-based partners ETH Zurich, Ruag and the Lausanne Polytechnic along with Dassault Aviation. The partners will decide on the future of the project depending on the fact-finding report.
Suborbital spaceflights are a new area of exploration for private aviation companies. US-based Virgin Atlantic has already unveiled its commercial passenger spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo and another suborbital flight called Future High-Altitude High-Speed Transport 20XX is in development in Europe.