Last July saw the climax of the most recent space race, in which Richard Branson demonstrated the capacity of his company Virgin Galactic, and Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin flew in a rocket which took him to the edge of space only 9 days afterwards.
Both companies form part of the New Space sector and are vying to capture the market of space travel for wealthy tourists who want to experience weightlessness and unforgettable views of planet Earth. At Solar MEMS we can point out some of the main differences between each of these successful flights.
The Virgin Galactic vehicle flew more than 80 kilometres high, reaching the area which the USA (including NASA) considers to be the frontier of space.
Blue Origin’s rocket, however, rose to over 100 kilometres in height to reach the Karman line which marks the start of space according to international conventions.
While it is true that there are only 20 kilometres difference in the altitude they reached, this may lead some to consider that Branson did not actually travel in space because he did not cross the Karman line, which most of the world considers to be the frontier.
Length of the flights
As regards the duration of the flight, Branson took 90 minutes altogether, and the passengers were in zero gravity for 3 minutes, while the flight of Blue Origin lasted for 11 minutes.
Forms of the spacecraft
When we think about space travel, we tend to think of rockets like the Blue Origin’s New Shepard. Branson, however, had other ideas for the flight of Virgin Galactic.
This is one of the most obvious differences between them, because the Virgin Galactic spacecraft looks more like a large plane than a classic rocket. It took off from a runway in an aerodrome. At 15 kilometres altitude, the spacecraft detached from the mothership and turned on its engines for a supersonic flight to rise above the mentioned altitude of 80 kilometres, where the United States defines the limits of space. On reaching this height, the engines turned off and the passengers experienced the sensation of floating in zero gravity.
In contrast, Blue Origin built a rocket (called New Shepard in honour of the first American to reach space, Alan Shepard) which used the classic vertically take off from western Texas.
This rocket is 16 metres tall and carries a semi-oval capsule on its tip, and it reaches speeds of Mach3, which means it travels at three times the speed of sound. Like the Virgin Galactic mission, once the planned distance from the ground has been reached, the passengers unstrap themselves to enjoy weightlessness.
Once the experience has ended, the capsule starts to free fall back to Earth and uses three large parachutes and retro boosters to land.
Virgin Galactic hopes to start running regular commercial operations at the start of next year and hopes to make 400 flights every year. It already has around 600 takers, including Hollywood stars, at prices between 200,000 and 250,000 dollars, and the company has said that the price will go up.
Blue Origin has not yet set a date for the start of commercial flights, nor has it announced the price of tickets. The company has been consistently reticent about announcing its plans since it was founded in 2000, although its goals will probably include both suborbital and orbital flights, both on official United States business and for private travel.