A private Danish rocket built by volunteers to launch one person into suborbital space is set to fly its first test flight Tuesday with a dummy pilot riding aboard.
If successful, the rocket should carry its payload up almost 19 miles (30 km) into the upper atmosphere. The project could pave the way for Denmark to eventually become the fourth space-faring nation to send humans into space after Russia, the United States and China.
Tuesday marks the earliest launch date within a longer launch window that stretches from Aug. 30 to Sept. 17.
The new suborbital rocket is called the Hybrid Exo Atmospheric Transporter 1X, or HEAT-1X. It carries a Tycho Brahe space capsule, which can hold one pilot in a half-standing, half-sitting posture.?
But the rocket will just carry a dummy for the first several suborbital flights to see how much G-force a human would endure. One G is equivalent to Earth's standard gravity.
"We get three Gs half-sitting, half-standing," said Peter Madsen, cofounder of Copenahgen Suborbitals. "Higher G loads may occur during re-entry, but here the capsule is oriented in a sidewards position where the astronaut has excellent G tolerance."
The $70,000 effort funded by private sponsors and donations includes the capsule, booster and an offshore launch platform.
Madsen's homemade submarine from a past project, called the Nautilus, has the duty of towing the floating platform to a designated launch site in the Baltic Sea near Copenhagen, Denmark. [10 Private Spaceships Becoming Reality]
During the Tycho Brahe capsule's descent, a drogue parachute and three main parachutes should deploy and carry it back down for recovery in the water by a fast boat.
Tracking radar and GPS should also help the ground team keep an eye on the launch and return.
Making it all work
Madsen decided to kick-start the private rocket venture when he met Kristian von Bengtson, an aerospace engineer who has worked with NASA on Mars and lunar programs. They gathered a small group of about 19 supporting team members.
"We get a lot of support and have access to experts that would be very expensive if we were commercial," Madsen told SPACE.com. "I honestly don't think we can afford to be commercial."
The Tycho Brahe capsule draws inspiration from the NASA space capsules of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, von Bengtson wrote in an e-mail. But he also aimed to simplify the overall design.
Liquid oxygen serves as the oxidizer part of the propellant, and polyurethane acts as the rocket fuel propellant. That allows the HEAT-1X booster to burn for 60 seconds and create almost 9,000 pounds of thrust (40 kN).
The inaugural flight should allow the Danish team to test the offshore launch concept, the high-speed aerodynamic properties of the vehicle, engine performance and recovery scenarios. Wireless telemetry gives real-time updates on the booster during burns.
A ride fit for astronauts
Sensors strapped to the dummy pilot can also record the forces that a living person might experience, for future design tweaks. But Madsen and von Bengtson won't risk a human pilot until they feel confident in the rocket's capabilities.
"We will need to see at least four perfect flights and if we feel it's needed we may even take more," Madsen explained. "It's a cheap rocket with many reusable parts."
Future human pilots might require an astronaut-style spirit of adventure, considering that they have a 360-degree view through the dome of plexiglass at the very tip of the rocket. They would use a joystick to control small cold gas thrusters that could rotate the craft around for different views.
"Anybody flying a single person spacecraft is a true pilot-astronaut and not a spaceflight participant," Madsen said. "This may appeal to some."
An aerospike on top of the plexiglass should hopefully blunt the full shock and thermal effects acting on the dome, the designers said. The capsule also has an iron plate shell with a cork lining to serve as the heat shield.
The space experience
The strapped-in human pilot would have his or her arms free to operate manual override systems or grab a vomit bag or an additional oxygen mask. The pilot would also have a pressure suit and a small emergency parachute.
Many pilots may want to also carry a camera to snap some pictures or capture video recordings. That should come in particularly handy during the weightless apogee portion of the flight, which would last just over 90 seconds.
Madsen noted that Copenhagen Suborbitals would never go commercial, but encouraged the idea of others picking up on the open-source idea. The team's approach for cheap, manned spaceflight could also potentially fly faster and higher than any space plane concept, he added.
He also suggested one extra bonus that most private spaceflight companies won't offer people could own their capsule and take it home as proof of their space adventures.
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