You have no doubt heard of stories of this in the past; the space cruiser that could take a group of people from anywhere in Europe to Australia in an hour and a half. This was concept laughed down and “dreamed up” by German Aerospace experts in the past decade, but it looks like we might finally have something that would provide the cynic and the doubters wrong. Indeed, in the last few days the German Aerospace Center’s SpaceLiner could be entering a deeply exciting design phase, further than it has ever been able to reach in the past.
In fact, a “mission definition review” – as vague as that might sound – has been planned for some stage in 2016. This offers a unique way to move things forward in terms of aviation and flight and – if the desired effects and powers could be provided in the system – it would be a landmark achievement for both space flight and “traditional” flight.
The plan is to create a two-stage aircraft that can work in tandem with another to create a hypersonic space vehicle that will, as described above, cut down the time it takes to fly incredible distances at the moment into a fraction of the original time. The place is to make the system fully re-usable, too, so that costs can be minimized and effectiveness can be maximized.
At the moment, though, the SpaceLiner is nothing more than concepts and ideas. It was described by Leonid Bussler of the Space Launch Systems Analysis team at the German Aerospace Centre that the project was currently at “Phase Zero”. As unenlightening as that may sound as this moment in time, it gives us a nice peek into just how far there is to go in making this project a reality – but the difference is that, today, it actually is real.
The vehicle will go through an extensive range of concept planning and debate, trying to find the perfect balance for the aircraft and ensuring that it can be broken down into a more simplistic, “baseline” configuration. These configurations and future plans for the aircraft will be created through extensive wind tunnel testing as well as looking at the various trade-offs the performances that are provided in the testing phase itself.
The testing phase is also set to be looked at by a group of independent surveyors, ensuring that the transition from Phase Zero to Phase A can be made as smoothly and as simply as it possibly can.
The plan is to develop a solid idea to move forward with that removes all cons and potential issues with the theory of the aircraft, moving towards creating a preliminary design of the aircraft that follows one specific mantra and one agreed upon concept. Whilst we might be some way away from seeing anything like the real SpaceLiner being completed, the chances are that most of us will see this unique transition from flying in the air to flying in space in our own lifetimes.
Following on from the expose of the SpaceLiner 7 which was unveiled three years as the plan to go on with, the aircraft was actually shown at the MAKS air show in a rough design format in recent times.
There have been various indications that mark seven might be the lucky number indeed, as plans to move forward from Phases Zero to A looks to be closer to being completed thanks to the immense level of progress that is being made in this package. The final configurations of #7 are yet to be agreed upon, but it looks to be as close to the real model as we are likely to see before any further releases are made.
One thing that is already known about the current model of this machine, though, is the specifications that it is likely to carry. The SpaceLiner is expected to be made up of two unique stages. The first stage, the “Booster” stage will be an 84m booster that is powered by nine hydrogen rocket engines powered by liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen mixes to create an extremely powerful throttle for the booster to get it to the destination.
Then, the second stage would take control. The twin-engine passenger stage would be moving at a hypersonic speed, moving across the very edges of space itself before making a drop and a safe descent back to its final and intended destination, wherever that may be in the world. It’s also expected to carry around 100 people.
The main power and idea behind the success of what could become the SpaceLiner, though, is the fact that everything is going to be entirely re-usable. This limits the waste of the aircraft massively and ensures that the engine being used on the orbiter and the booster stage will be one and the same, allowing for easy transition of both the expensive and high-end materials as well as the resources that are being used. Each model would be available for re-use an estimated 100-300 times, making them pretty reliable for the kind of flights they would be undertaking.
However, this might all sound optimistic and extremely positive – but there are still many pitfalls and problems to be overcome before things could become that next stage more realistic. For example, a thermal projection system that is going to capable of dealing with the incredibly demands of overcoming the massive temperature changes that occur during a hypersonic flight still has to be thought up, never mind created! At the moment, this stands as arguably the biggest barrier for the developers.
The other “red tape” issue that holds this back from being a reality, though, is the lack of genuine regulation. Like when anything game-changing hits the market, there is no way to actually certify that this is safe for flight as there is nothing to really test it against; it will be the first vehicle of its kind. This means that certification and the right to flight through proof of safety is almost impossible to attain, which makes it almost impossible to guarantee at the moment. Another key problem is the way that the aircraft will actually carry out its descent in the first place.
The problem is that it will be crossing several locations all at once; meaning that various international flight laws can come into play within a matter of seconds. The next problem is also making sure there would be a capability to match the demand of both launching and then receiving these forms of transit – the technology costs are expected to be extreme, so affordability could be one problem that stops this kind of project from ever truly getting off the ground and moving from development to becoming a reality later on down the track.
The Big Idea
The sales appeal of the project, though, is rather simple; people who choose this method will be able to go on holiday at the same time. Since this would more or less breach the atmosphere and give everyone a glimpse of space – or as close as anyone is ever likely to get in this life – it would act as a fantastic tourist event as much as a much improved method of transport. The main usage of this product, though, will be for fast and effective commercial transport to get people from one continent to the next as quickly as they possibly can.
It’s estimated that, under the current planning concepts, the booster would reach as high as 246,000ft in terms of altitude at a speed of around 3.7km/s – the equivalent to Mach 14. By the second stage, however, the speeds would reach 262,500ft and 7km/s (Mach 24) respectively. These speeds are, naturally, unheard of at present and would represent a ground breaking change in the way that aviation works moving forward.
The element of safety, however, has not escaped the attention of the news and those who are involved; the cockpit itself will be entirely sealed and will be capable of disconnecting from the rest of the compartments with passengers in the case of an emergency. Form here, each seat could potentially be encapsulated to ensure that cabin pressure problems would not be an issue.
So, when can we expect the SpaceLiner to be moving around an operational? The estimate at the moment is around 30 years, or 2045. However, this is a “cautious” target so it all depends on the speed of development as well as how quickly the missing material can be put together and created in the right manner – so, there is still a chance that you’ll see something as incredible as this unfold.
Given the staggering estimated cost of flying just the prototype, though, of $33bn it is likely that this would require a fair amount of money to be invested before it could fly. They also estimate that six prototypes is going to be needed o make it serviceable and reliable – so think about the cost of this; there’s a good chance the money might run out before the thirty year timer does!