SPACEPORT AMERICA – Seven payloads with scientific experiments are set to shoot into suborbit this morning on an UP Aerospace rocket paid for by NASA.
The UP rocket, known as the SpaceLoft, is set to launch from Spaceport America’s vertical launch complex sometime between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m and is expected to reach an altitude of 74 miles during its 14-minute flight. The internationally accepted boundary for reaching space is 62 miles.
The rocket is supposed to spend 3 1/2 minutes in microgravity before returning to Earth and landing downrange from the spaceport at White Sands Missile Range.
It’s the first UP rocket to fly under NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, which pays aerospace companies for suborbital flights to test new technologies in space.
Today’s scheduled launch is expected to earn UP just under $600,000, assuming the rocket successfully reaches space and all payloads are recovered. A second NASA-funded UP launch is scheduled for October.
NASA launched the program as part of its shift to using private companies to continue space exploration after the space shuttle stopped flying.
“NASA used to put scientific experiments on space shuttle flights to the Space Station, so this new program helps them to continue getting experiments to space,” Spaceport America Executive Director Christine Anderson told the Journal . “In this case, UP is providing the vehicle for it.”
The UP rocket will carry experiments provided by NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Defense, and the Italian engineering firm DTM Technologies.
The UP flight also will include two payloads with educational experiments provided by students from schools around the state under the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium’s Summer of Innovation Launch and Learn Program, funded by NASA.
Some of the experiments deal with the effects of space environments on algae, such as the impact of radiation. Participating schools include: La Academia de Dolores Huerta Charter Middle School of Las Cruces; Cobre High School of Silver City; Camino Real Middle School of Las Cruces; Hot Springs High School of Truth or Consequences; New Mexico State University; and New Mexico Tech.
NASA selects experiments for flights based on proposals from government agencies, academia, private industry and international entities.
NASA awarded contracts to seven companies under the program in 2011, including UP, which could earn a total of $4.7 million if NASA moves forward with all eight launches called for under its contract.
“UP is one of our first flight-service providers that’s giving us regular flights,” said Dougal Naclise, technology manager for the NASA program. “We have another company, Masten Space Systems, that has been flying out of the Mojave Desert in California.”
In addition to testing new technologies, NASA’s payload program aims to build the emerging commercial space industry by providing business opportunities for companies like UP.
“NASA made a decision to turn many things over to commercial companies to pick up the ball on exploration activities, such as going back to the moon or going to other planets, with the goal of establishing a presence beyond Earth,” Naclise said. “We want to see these companies succeed, so the program helps to kick start things.”
The launch would be UP’s 11th launch from the Spaceport since 2006. The company has flown the SpaceLoft rocket six times previously, and it test flew other vehicles four times under contract with private companies, including Lockheed Martin and Florida-based Fundamental Technology Systems Inc.