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New tech spurs spaceplane vision: halfway around world in 40 minutes

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An illustration depicts Radian Aerospace’s R-4 spaceplane in flight. Image courtesy of Radian Aerospace
An illustration depicts Radian Aerospace’s R-4 spaceplane in flight. Image courtesy of Radian Aerospace

ORLANDO, Fla., Jan. 26 (UPI) -- Seattle-area company Radian Aerospace plans to build and commercialize a true spaceplane that could take off from a commercial runway, fly to space and return under its own power -- a feat never achieved in aerospace history.

The company emerged from secrecy in an announcement last week that said a former Boeing official who oversaw that company's X-33 spaceplane program, Livingston Holder, is now its chief technology officer.

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The company plans a "single-stage-to-orbit" plane, meaning it would not use expendable rocket boosters or stages, which all orbital rockets have used throughout history, including the partially reusable space shuttle system. Shuttles themselves were reusable, but liftoff required the use of giant fuel tanks that fell into remote ocean locations after launch.

Virgin Galactic's Spaceship Two is a kind of spaceplane that launches with a rocket engine from a plane, which also is a staged deployment.

Holder acknowledged in an email to UPI that flying a true spaceplane "is very difficult" but said some "technologies that we are using were not available during earlier programs."

He said Radian plans to "take advantage of years of advancements in materials science, reduction in component size, weight and power, as well as manufacturing technologies."

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Radian joins a list of companies that have attempted true spaceplane development, including the defunct XCOR Aerospace, a California firm that dissolved in bankruptcy in 2017 before it could test its Lynx spaceplane.

"The industry in general has matured a number of the technologies we are leveraging to the point where a ... spaceplane is no longer a pipe dream," Holder told UPI.

A true spaceplane is the "holy grail of spaceflight," Erik Seedhouse, assistant professor of aerospace at Florida-based Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said in an interview.

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"This is what NASA tried to do with the space shuttle, but they just didn't have the money," Seedhouse said.

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The true advantage of such a spaceplane would be taking off from any airport as a jet, flying into space, where there's no air friction, and arriving on the other side of the globe in about 40 minutes, Seedhouse said.

"The ability to take off and land at any airport in the world would be key, because no airport will ever allow an orbital rocket to launch from their facilities," he said. "So rockets will always need to launch and land in remote areas, and most travelers don't want to land in a remote area."

A British company, Reaction Engines, may beat Radian into space with its Skylon spaceplane concept that has been under development for decades, Seedhouse said. The company plans its first test flight in 2022.

The best minds at NASA have worked on spaceplane concepts for decades, Iain Boyd, professor of aerospace engineering and director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado, said in an interview.

"We don't have the engines or the technology to do this yet, and it will take many years of development before we do," Boyd said.

What's needed is an engine or suite of engines that can provide a steady, measured takeoff and then provide the explosive thrust needed to escape the atmosphere and Earth's gravity while still performing in the vacuum of space, he said. So far, no such engine exists.

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A true spaceplane would cut down on orbital space debris by not ejecting rocket stages, which requires the release of pins and bolts, Boyd said.

"Cutting down on space debris alone would be a huge advantage," he said.

Radian has raised $32 million in investment rounds. The company acknowledges that is far short of what's needed to reach a test flight.

"We expect the development of the first flight vehicle to cost nearly $500 million, which until this current era of new space technologies, would have been nearly impossible," the company told UPI.

Out-of-this-world images from space

The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA

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