At Newspace 2012, hosted by the Space Frontier Foundation in Santa Clara, California, Armadillo Aerospace announced it has been awarded a two-year launch license by the FAA for the launch of its STIG-B payload-carrying vehicle into suborbital space this (northern hemisphere) summer from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Armadillo Aerospace was founded in Mesquite, Texas by John Carmack, the games programmer behind such titles as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake. The company's main goal is to build reusable rocket powered vehicles for suborbital research and passenger flights, with eventual plans for orbital flights. The company is most famous for its Vertical Lift Vertical Landing “Quad” rockets – one of which won the US$500,000 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge Level 2 in 2009.
Armadillo’s latest project is its reusable Suborbital Transport with Inertial Guidance (STIG) rockets. Though the STIG uses the same technology as the Quad rockets, it’s a new class of high speed, high altitude launch vehicle. STIG-B builds on the success of Armadillo's STIG-A, which recently completed a series of test flights in New Mexico under an FAA waiver.
STIG-A only reached an altitude of 95 kilometers (59 mi), but STIG-B is intended to fly 50 kg (110 lb) payloads to altitudes of over 100 kilometers (62 mi), which is the official beginning of space known as the Kármán line. Furthermore, it will do so carrying two payloads for customers Vega Space and the University of Purdue, who are paying Armadillo to send their cargoes into three minutes of microgravity. The carrying of commercial payloads is what ruled out STIG-B launching under the aforementioned FAA waiver.
When contacted, Armadillo Aerospace said that the STIG-B is still undergoing assembly and that details of its design are not yet available. However, Neil Milburn, Armadillo Aerospace's VP of Program Management, has revealed STIG-B is slightly bigger than STIG-A, measuring 34 feet (10.3 m) long and 20 inches (0.5 m) in diameter. He also stated that STIG-B is designed to act as a testbed for technology to be used on a future vehicle to carry humans to suborbital space.
Also, an image on Parabolic Arc and comments by John Cormack in a 2006 update letter indicate that STIG-B may be a variation on an OTRAG-style cluster rocket That is, a launch vehicle with several rockets strapped together in parallel like a bundle of sticks. In 2006, Cormack wrote, “I seriously considered an OTRAG style massive-cluster-of-cheap-modules orbital design back when we had 98 percent peroxide (assumed to be a bipropellant with kerosene), and I have always considered it one of the viable routes to significant reduction in orbital launch costs.”
The company has received launch permits before when testing their lunar lander class vehicles, but this is their first launch license. "The Operator Launch License enables Armadillo Aerospace to launch payloads for revenue service" said Milburn. "The inaugural flight of STIG-B scheduled for this summer is carrying two revenue payloads, one for Vega Space and the other for the University of Purdue, and, if successful, this will qualify the STIG vehicles for NASA's Flight Opportunities Program."
The first launch of STIG-B is planned for later this month, with a total of 24 launches at a rate of one a month planned. Armadillo's future plans also include further scientific payload launches and eventually sending tourists into space.
The video below shows a launch of STIG-A, STIG-B's predecessor.
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