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Exciting Commercial Space Units to Watch: SpaceX and Copenhagen Suborbital

commercial rockets

As SpaceX completes safety tests on its potential human space capsule, and a European outfit preps its innovative rocket for a test launch, it's obvious that some of the most exciting space news at the moment is coming from folks other than NASA.

Copenhagen Suborbitals

In just one week's time, on August 30th, Danish company Copenhagen Suborbitals is going to put everything on the line and try a test launch of its full HEAT rocket system—a vehicle that one day soon may be used to carry human passengers on a quick "popgun" ride into (as the name implies) suborbital space. The mission is something akin to Virgin Galactic's plans to ferry passengers into the void aboard its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, just using a pure rocket rather than a combination airborne launcher-flight vehicle system.

It's being lauded as the world's first amateur effort to launch people into space, and it's the culmination of work that started in 2004. The unusual HEAT rocket uses a relatively low-thrust liquid-oxygen motor that propels the lightweight vehicle upwards at under 3g accelerations, meaning passengers can ride standing vertically inside the Tycho Brahe single-man capsule. There they'll get an almost unprecedented view of the world, the ride and space from a transparent dome at the tip of the stack. With engine tests already completed successfully, the upcoming launch will be the first full-scale test of the system—unmanned. If all goes well, company co-founder Peter Madsen plans to be a passenger as soon as possible.

SpaceX Dragon Capsule

SpaceX's efforts to capitalize on President Obama's commercial space push have often hit the headlines, and now the company has passed an important milestone for its efforts to get not just cargo but people into orbit. The company has been developing both its Falcon launch rocket and Dragon space capsule in order to deliver cargo to the International Space Station during the years when NASA cannot perform these missions, and has followed an unusual path in Dragon's design: Right from the outset the capsule was designed to be human-ratable. This means that ultimately, and with relatively low costs and short timescales, Dragon could be adapted to loft astronauts into orbit and up to the ISS.

As part of this rating, the Dragon capsule just recently completed a high-altitude test of its parachute recovery system. Much like the Apollo and Soyuz capsules which use huge parachutes to slow a capsule and float it gently to a touchdown (after its slowed from orbital speeds by its re-entry shield) Dragon has a two-stage, multiple-parachute descent system. Last week a test unit was hauled up to 14,000 feet by helicopter and dropped, and everything worked exactly as planned—with the capsule making an acceptably gentle touchdown in the ocean off the Californian shore. The test proves Dragon can return up to 2.5 tonnes of cargo, or a human payload safely to the Earth after a spaceflight, and if all goes well with further developments SpaceX will add correction rockets to enable pinpoint landing targeting to within a mile of the selected point.

To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.