Published online 19 February 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.83

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Final frontier beckons for researchers

Cheap spaceflight set to transform science, industry claims.

Lynx spacecraftThe Lynx could be ready to fly humans and experimental payloads to space as early as 2011.XCOR Aerospace

Spaceflight could soon be opened up to hundreds or potentially thousands of researchers rather than just an elite few, said experts at a space-research conference in Boulder, Colorado, this week.

The Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, which runs until 20 February, has drawn more than 250 delegates, including space scientists, aerospace-industry representatives and government officials. Their aim is to discuss the logistics of doing research aboard commercial suborbital space flights, which the industry says will soon be routine and affordable (see 'Science lines up for seat to space').

"I think it's going to shock a lot of people by how transformative it is when access to space becomes like a laboratory instrument, when it becomes something you just go out and do," says Jeff Greason, president of XCOR Aerospace, based in Mojave, California. "The immediacy of being able to do science live from space every day of the week is going to be spectacular." Greason compares it to a time when electron microscopes were so expensive that only a few labs could afford them. "Now every researcher takes for granted they'll have one. They don't book a time, they just say 'I need to go do an experiment'."

XCOR is developing a piloted, two-seat suborbital rocket plane called Lynx that could fly in early 2011. Lynx will operate like an aircraft, taking humans and experimental payloads on 30–45-minute suborbital flights up to heights of some 100 kilometres and then returning to the landing strip from which it launched.

As an example of how research aboard commercial space flights will soon be a reality, conference organizers announced the winner of this year's Student Suborbital Experiment Competition, in which they invited graduate students and undergraduates to submit research proposals for experiments to fly on future commercial spaceflights. The winners, a team from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces — whose proposal is titled 'Robotics-Based Inertial Property Identification Algorithm for Orbiting Spacecraft' — learned that their prize is to have their experiment flown on a zero-gravity flight slated for late 2010, provided by Masten Space Systems of Mojave.

Fighting for space

NASA announced that it would provide a five-year budget of US$15 million per year for scientific and educational suborbital missions. And the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, a space-science and engineering research and development organization — which co-sponsored the conference together with the Universities Space Research Association and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation — said that it will put $1 million towards developing and flying its own microgravity and space-astronomy experiments and buying seats on next-generation suborbital vehicles over the next three years.

"By the end of 2011 or beginning of 2012 you're going to see spaceports struggling to deal with a flight rate that's completely unprecedented," says Greason.

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The meeting is the first mainstream discussion of suborbital space research, drawing together experts in the field who once discussed it only in small circles, says David Grinspoon, curator of astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado. "This is historical in the sense that this is a gathering to begin the practical details of what are we going to do, really, and how are we going to do it," he says. "Maybe the whole thing will fizzle. Maybe there will be some horrible accident. But if it becomes real, then this gathering will have been absolutely pivotal in getting it going."

Alan Stern, a planetary scientist with the Southwest Research Institute, asked the standing-room-only crowd how many attendees envisioned using space vehicles for their own research. It was hard to spot someone whose hand didn't shoot up. "I don't see why, in the coming years, we couldn't have graduate students doing their PhD research in space, or even undergraduates," Stern told the audience. "I think that's the future." 

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