Thursday 2 May 2013

The End of Ignorosphere: An Aeronomy Researchers Conference on Commercial Sub-Orbital Access to Space

This week there was an interesting workshop on using next generation commercial reusable sub-orbital spacecraft for atmospheric science. The key point was, that these new rockets will provide cheap and reliable in-situ soundings of the 40-100 km altitude region of our upper atmosphere that is difficult to sense remotely, and of which not enough is known yet. We know so little about the physics of this region that sometimes it is referred to as the "ignorosphere".

In addition to aeronomy researchers, there were representatives from XCOR Aerospace, and Virgin Galatic -- two companies that are developing commercial suborbital spacecraft.

Group photo.  
The fact that you could potentially launch instruments up to 100 km many times per day, for a significantly smaller cost than before sounds too good to be true. These rockets will also have a much smaller failure rate than before, which is game changing for some of research done using sounding rockets.

I've always viewed sounding rocket measurements uninteresting because there is a lot of expensive preparation work involved with just one launch -- and that has a very high probability of failing. And even if it works, you only have one data point. Based on the discussions at the workshop, this will change.

Let's hope that the Kiruna space port opens soon, so that we can use all of the assets, including KAIRA and EISCAT simultaneously with regular sub-orbital in-situ measurements of our ignorosphere.

Edit: fixed links, added text, and added a bit about the Kiruna space port that I forgot to mention. 

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