Spaceports spring up all over
Last week, Virgin Galactic announced plans to fly spaceships from Arctic Sweden. looks at where else you can reach for the stars.
What is a spaceport anyway?
Any facility that can launch craft into space, technically 100 km up. Traditionally, such places have been monopolized by the state — for example, Kennedy Space Centre in Florida or the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan — with a focus on heavy-lift, orbital rockets. But recently, the buzz has been about commercialization and space tourism, using smaller vehicles and minimal infrastructure.
Why the sudden interest?
The space-tourism industry was kick-started in 2004, with the winning of the X-prize — a competition to build a reusable, private spaceship that could carry passengers to the edge of space. The winning technology (Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne) was quickly licensed to Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic — a company dedicated to space tourism. Virgin Galactic expects to begin test flights of a larger spaceship in 2008 from Mojave in California and Spaceport America in New Mexico.
What on Earth is Spaceport America?
This will be the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport, and is expected to act as an 'incubator' for the new industry. They have wooed Virgin Galactic and a handful of others, including the UK's Starchaser Industries, to use their facilities, which are being built in New Mexico now.
So why branch out to Sweden?
Virgin Galactic was looking at two possible sites in Europe to broaden the options for customers: northern Scotland and Kiruna in Sweden. Kiruna seems to have clinched the deal though, thanks to the gee-whiz factor of seeing — and maybe flying through — the Northern Lights. It also helps that the Kiruna site has a long history of launching rockets and research balloons, and so requires little in the way of new infrastructure.
Where's my nearest private spaceport?
If you live in the USA, there are six licensed spaceports to choose from (see map). So far, only Mojave, scene of the X-prize flights, has launched humans. But licenses have been granted to sites in California, Florida, Virginia, Alaska and Oklahoma, all of which have hangers, airstrips and the other basic essentials for suborbital transport. Ohio and Wisconsin have also declared an interest. And then there's Spaceport America, which can't get an official license until they have built enough of the facility to prove that it will be safe. Outside the United States, a company called Space Adventures are planning additional sites in the United Arab Emirates and Singapore.
Can spaceports be located anywhere?
Noise, pollution and the risk of rocket explosion do not sit comfortably above family homes, so most spaceports are built in isolated areas — like old US airbases. This has to be balanced against locations with convenient facilities to attract and accommodate staff and tourists.
The planned spaceport in Ras Al-Khaimah, in the United Arab Emirates, was selected for this reason. "Dubai, which is only 45 minutes from the site, is a real hub of tourism," says Eric Anderson, chief executive office of Space Adventures. The proposed Swedish spaceport would be close to an existing tourist highlight — the famous Ice Hotel.
This is all fine and good for low altitude tourist missions. But if you want to launch satellites or people into orbit, you need to be more picky. "Part of the strategy in choosing Dubai and Singapore for our spaceports was their closeness to the equator," says Anderson. "This would allow us to expand into orbital operations if we desired."
Is it just about tourism?
Flying the wealthy to the edges of space has huge money-making potential. But there are other opportunities too. A suborbital craft is one step towards developing a space-grazing airliner that could fly half-way round the world in an hour — something that has obvious attractions to Virgin, which owns an airline. There are also potential contracts with NASA or other players to launch satellites, or to help ferry material to the International Space Station and the Moon. In future, space tourists could also be visiting a spaceport on their way to a space hotel (see 'The inflatable space hotel').
So when can I fly?
That's the big question. The only tourist flights so far have been orbital flights on Russian Soyuz vehicles, which would set you back over US$20 million. For those with shallower pockets, Branson's suborbital flights are aiming to start from California in 2009. Space Adventures are more cagey about actual dates, but promise to launch suborbital tourist flights in "a very small number of years".