Suborbital Firms Have Mixed Results in Tests

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Two small commercial firms developing unmanned suborbital launch vehicles with NASA seed money staged test flights in June with mixed results.

Masten Space Systems of Mojave, Calif., conducted the first free flight of its Xaero rocket  — a vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing vehicle being developed in part with NASA money awarded in August. The award was part of the space agency’s Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research program. Xaero uses a Masten-built Cyclops-AL-3 engine that burns isopropyl alcohol and liquid oxygen.

Xaero flew its first free flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port June 29.

“The flight test was successful and our technical objectives were met,” said Masten spokesman Colin Ake. “The vehicle ascended to 1.8 meters above ground level before hovering briefly and descending to landing.”

Ake added that the June 29 test was not one of the two Xaero test flights being funded by NASA’s commercial suborbital program. The first of those tests was to take place in December, but that date has slipped. As of July 1, Masten had not set a new date for the launch, Ake told Space News.

Meanwhile, another NASA-funded commercial suborbital launcher failed shortly after its launch June 11 at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Armadillo Aerospace said its SuperMod suborbital rocket veered sharply off course only seconds after launch, triggering an abort about 1.5 kilometers above the high desert. Multiple pieces of the rocket were torn from the vehicle’s body after the unintended course change. The rocket’s main recovery parachute deployed, but several of its chords snapped and the SuperMod spiraled back to Earth. The crash sparked a small brush fire, as the rocket landed with nearly a full tank of unexpended propellant, the company said.

Armadillo of Heath, Texas, disclosed the failed test flight in a June 16 post on its website. The company said the failure likely was caused by a cracked standpipe — a rigid tube used for fluid transfer — that broke off inside of the rocket’s fuel tank. This “led to engine instability 11 seconds into the flight,” Armadillo said.

SuperMod is a derivative of Armadillo’s Module 1 (Mod) vertical take-off, vertical landing vehicle. Flying Mod, Armadillo took first place in the 2008 Northrop Grumman Lunar Landing Challenge — a competition that awarded NASA prize money for the best simulated Moon landing.

In August 2010, Masten and Armadillo shared a $475,000 Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research award. The program is intended to mature experimental suborbital launch technology and help create a commercial suborbital launch industry to fly science, engineering and experimental payloads.

Masten and Armadillo will be required to carry NASA payloads to and from “near-space” — defined as anywhere between 20 and 107 kilometers in altitude — during the agency-funded flights.