Headlines > News > No Wings? No Chutes? No Problem

No Wings? No Chutes? No Problem

Published by Rob on Thu Jun 23, 2005 8:39 am
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By Amit Asaravala
Space agencies around the world, take note: The burgeoning private space industry isn’t content to follow your lead.
At least three space tourism startups are building spacecraft that forgo the wing-and-parachute landing systems used by space shuttles and space capsules in favor of retrorockets. These rockets will slow down the new spacecraft enough to land gently on their feet, UFO-style.

The startups are betting that the technique will allow them to carry out missions more frequently and cheaply than NASA ever could.

“From a simplicity standpoint, there are less systems on there. There are no additional systems to land that you didn’t already need to fly up,” said John Carmack, founder of space tourism upstart Armadillo Aerospace, of his company’s vehicle. “You basically just land it and fill it back up.”

So-called soft landings aren’t new to NASA or the Russian space agency. Both used the technique in the ’60s and ’70s to drop landers on the moon and Mars.

But when it comes to bringing astronauts home, the agencies have always preferred to take advantage of Earth’s atmosphere to slow down their spacecraft — hence, the wings and parachutes.

This saves them the expense of hauling around extra fuel for retrorockets. But it also means more complex vehicles that take longer to prepare before each launch.

Carmack, who is funding Armadillo Aerospace with the fortune he made developing the popular Doom and Quake video-game series, believes it’s time to reconsider that philosophy. His company claims to have come up with a spacecraft design in which the extra fuel for retrorockets only adds roughly 10 percent to the vehicle’s landing weight.

The trade-off is worth it, especially when you consider that designing wings amounts to “really a pretty nasty engineering item,” he argues.

Parachutes are lighter but they come with challenges of their own.

“You have to design for large crumple zones. You have to repack the parachute (after) you recover it from what may be many, many miles away,” he said. “The bottom line is that a parachute system can be lighter but you add a lot more difficulty to the turnaround.”

Armadillo Aerospace has already performed 100 short takeoffs and landings with scaled-down test vehicles, according to Carmack. The company plans to show off an updated prototype at the X Prize Cup event in October.

Other companies developing soft landers include Norman, Oklahoma-based TGV Rockets and Seattle-based Blue Origin, founded by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos.. Read more at wired.com

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