Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Weekend Spaceport America launch deemed "partial' success

While many Doña Ana County residents were busy with last-minute early voting Saturday, state spaceport officials were busy launching a rocket. The 17th vertical launch since Spaceport America's inception took place when Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace sent up what it calls a "STIG-B" rocket. Spaceport officials announced the launch on Monday, describing it as "partially successful." The rocket didn't reach its target height, but otherwise, the launch went well, said Bill Gutman, Spaceport America's technical director.

"It was partially successful because it didn't achieve the desired altitude, but everything on the rocket worked exactly like it was supposed to," he said. "I'd say it was 75 percent successful."

The vehicle fell short of its 62.1 mile-high — or 100-kilometer — goal, according to the spaceport.

Spaceport America Executive Director Christine Anderson said the company will still glean useful information about its vehicle.

"Every launch ... is really a success for research and development, because you're learning every time, assuming you're doing good engineering," she said.

The launch was the second FAA-licensed flight for Spaceport America, officials said.

The rocket, which is still in its developmental phase, is meant to eventually help carry satellites and passengers to suborbital space.

Armadillo Aerospace has carried out seven launches at Spaceport America, according to a news release.

The company paid $10,000 to the spaceport for use of its facilities this weekend, Anderson said.

Gutman and Anderson said Armadillo Aerospace's design is unique, because typically the rocket portion of a system used to launch satellites is single-use, and the only part that's recovered is the payload, they said.

But with Armadillo Aerospace's model, the rocket can be re-used, which could cut down costs.

"We're happy to have them as a customer; they're doing some really neat things," Gutman said.

Asked why the event wasn't announced prior to the launch, Anderson said the company has requested it. They said it helps to avoid divulging proprietary technology.

"If you're knowledgeable about rockets, you could immediately know what fuel they're using," Gutman said.

Anderson said it's likely more Armadillo Aerospace rockets could launch this year, but she's not certain how many.

The STIG-B rocket is a larger version of the STIG-A rocket, which the company has launched from Spaceport America previously, officials said.

"It's a little bit larger and can carry a little bit more weight," Gutman said.

Armadillo Aerospace is one company that could consider housing operations at the spaceport, Anderson said. But the chances hinge on whether the state OKs a legal liability waiver for spaceflight parts manufacturers, she said.

The measure has already been approved for spaceflight operators, but Spaceport America officials are seeking to extend the waiver to include parts manufacturers. The measure has been opposed by trial attorneys at the Legislature.

Virgin Galactic, which plans horizontal launches for suborbital space tourists, is Spaceport America's anchor tenant. But officials have said the project's ultimate success requires establishing more tenants.


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