Space Tourism Firm Unveils Orbital Spacecraft Concept
The private spaceflight partnership PlanetSpace-Canadian Arrow announced plans to build the Silver Dart spacecraft, an orbital vehicle designed to launch eight people into space.
Credit: PlanetSpace/Canadian Arrow.

A space tourism group developing a suborbital rocket ship is now taking aim at orbital trips with a new spacecraft that doubles as a hypersonic glider.

Canada's London, Ontario-based firm PlanetSpace unveiled designs for its Silver Dart spacecraft, an eight-person vehicle derived from experimental aircraft studies in the 1970s, Thursday with hopes of carrying fare-paying passengers into orbit and resupplying the International Space Station (ISS).

"The Silver Dart is the DC-3 of the space industry," said Geoff Sheerin, PlanetSpace president and CEO, in a telephone interview. "It has so many things going for it in terms of performance."

Sheerin's Silver Dart program is separate from his Canadian Arrow effort to use a proven V2 rocket design to build a three-person rocket ship for suborbital flights. Plans for the Silver Dart date back about four years as Sheerin was researching the Canadian Arrow rocket to compete in the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition for suborbital spaceflight.

"About five percent of my time has been looking and poring over the program," Sheerin said of the Silver Dart plans.

But NASA's intention to purchase commercial services for both cargo and crew flights to the ISS encouraged Sheerin and his team to push forward with their work. NASA plans to retire its three remaining space shuttles - Atlantis, Endeavour and Discovery - in 2010.

Based on the U.S. Air Force's Flight Dynamics Laboratory-7 (FDL-7) program, the Silver Dart is a lifting body designed to glide from hypersonic speeds of Mach 22 down to landing, PlanetSpace officials said. The spacecraft is expected to launch vertical atop a stack of about 10 Canadian Arrow rocket engines and land horizontally on an aircraft runway, they added.

The first Silver Dart spaceflight is expected follow the inaugural manned Canadian Arrow launches, the first of which is slated for 2008 with four more to follow, Sheerin said.

"You want to have a multitude of vehicles," said PlanetSpace chairman Chrinjeev Kathuria. "With the Canadian Arrow, you'd want to enter the [spaceflight] market very quickly. The second stage is the Silver Dart."

NASA based its X-24B test aircraft on the FDL-7 lifting body and valued the added range and stability the sleek, sharp-nosed design, according to documentation from the space agency's Dryden Flight Research Facility in California.

Paul Cyzsz, an engineer who worked on the original FDL-7 effort and is guiding PlanetSpace's Silver Dart work, said the new spacecraft would use a 1960-1970s era shell wrapped around a lighter inner body with updated, modern electronics.

"The advantage of an all metal aircraft is that you can land in any kind of weather," said Paul Cyzsz, adding that unlike NASA's space shuttle - which does not land in rain to prevent damage to its exterior. "You can't trap it in space, it can always get back to the continental United States."

Cyzsz said the FDL-7's lifting body design would also give the Silver Dart about twice the lift coefficient as NASA's space shuttles at subsonic speeds.

"We're committed to building the Silver Dart," Sheerin said, adding that he decided early on that his program needed the additional performance of a different space vehicle. "I really kind of feel in love with this concept."