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posted by janrinok on Thursday January 20, @12:13PM   Printer-friendly
from the no-affiliation-with-Monty-Python dept.

Radian announces plans to build one of the holy grails of spaceflight:

A Washington-state based aerospace company has exited stealth mode by announcing plans to develop one of the holy grails of spaceflight—a single-stage-to-orbit space plane. Radian Aerospace said it is deep into the design of an airplane-like vehicle that could take off from a runway, ignite its rocket engines, spend time in orbit, and then return to Earth and land on a runway.

"We all understand how difficult this is," said Livingston Holder, Radian's co-founder, chief technology officer, and former head of the Future Space Transportation and X-33 program at Boeing.

On Wednesday, Radian announced that it had recently closed a $27.5 million round of seed funding, led by Fine Structure Ventures. To date, Radian has raised about $32 million and has 18 full-time employees at its Renton, Washington, headquarters.

During an interview with Ars, Holder and Radian CEO Richard Humphrey explained that they realized it would require significantly more funding to build such an ambitious orbital space plane. Funding will pace their development efforts. For that reason, Humphrey said he was not comfortable putting a date on the company's first test flights but said that Radian was aiming to have an operational capability well before the end of the 2020s.

The current design of Radian One calls for taking up to five people and 5,000 pounds of cargo into orbit. The vehicle would have a down-mass capability of about 10,000 pounds and be powered by three liquid-fueled engines. The idea would be to get as close to airline operations as possible, by flying, landing, re-fueling, and flying again.

Since its founding in 2016, Radian has focused on the propulsion and structure of a vehicle that must withstand a variety of thermal and pressure environments. Humphrey said the company has built and tested its first "full-scale" engine. At full power, this cryogenic-fueled engine will have a thrust of about 200,000 pounds.

[...] There can be no question that this is a hugely challenging endeavor that many people have tried before. Will Radian find the right stuff, at the right moment in time? We'd like to think so.


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  • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Thursday January 20, @04:31PM (8 children)

    by JoeMerchant (3937) on Thursday January 20, @04:31PM (#1214209)

    The shuttle was an early attempt. SSTO will happen, and it will be the "best way" to do things, eventually. Is the tech there yet? Probably not, at least not from an efficiency standpoint - you can do it cheaper the same way that the Mercury program ran. Are the Falcon reusable boosters economically efficient today compared to disposable boosters? Probably not, but the way to get there is to learn by doing. Same with SSTO.

    Can they make it for $30M? Probably not, there's a bell curve of probable cost and $30M is probably on the low side of 1% probability.

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  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by crafoo on Thursday January 20, @05:47PM (1 child)

    by crafoo (6639) on Thursday January 20, @05:47PM (#1214240)

    Are the Falcon reusable boosters economically efficient today compared to disposable boosters? Probably not

    curious about this assessment, as the falcon launches are about 1/10th the cost to put a satellite in orbit compared to competitors.

    • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Thursday January 20, @06:07PM

      by JoeMerchant (3937) on Thursday January 20, @06:07PM (#1214249)

      I am curious as well, but we will never really know: what were the total program development costs? How much is being subsidized from various sources? (don't forget tax breaks, low cost use of launch/recovery facilities) etc.

      What we do know is: they're working, pretty darn reliably, and that's the real accomplishment: first long term working demonstration of the tech. Even if the true cost of lbs to LEO is 2x what SpaceX could have done a disposable for, doesn't matter. They're launching payloads valuable enough to justify the cost of the running system.

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  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by Spamalope on Thursday January 20, @06:23PM (2 children)

    by Spamalope (5233) on Thursday January 20, @06:23PM (#1214257) Homepage

    ?? The Falcon boosters were cheaper than alternatives even before they were able to recover them.

    This thing though - $30B is more like it. $30M won't get it done to develop and certify a new Cesna. SSTO has far too many difficult (aka $$$) unsolved problems to overcome before you even know if it's a good idea.

    SSTO - even if that happens, it doesn't mean it's going to be the best way. Vehicle weight matters, and dual capabilities as well as initial liftoff ability is heavy.

    Scaled Composites Stratolaunch two vehicle design looks more viable. The space vehicle doesn't have to carry the 1,300,000 lb takeoff weight of the carrier craft, the fuel tanks or huge wings for that while still having a large payload. It's inefficient to make the orbital vehicle carry fuel tanks and wings for low altitude. Engines that work at low and high altitude both are heavier and less efficient than specialized ones and neither work in a vacuum. Re-entry heating and rocket engine stresses mean both need significant manpower put in between flights. Separating the initial lift onto a 'conventional-ish' aircraft that doesn't need that labor looks like a win once you've amortized the cost of developing that aircraft. Stratolaunch certainly looks viable, though they have all of the 'new type' hurdles and teething pains to deal with.

    Meanwhile, SpaceX Starship is under rapid development and looks to be pushing 'conventional' rockets into both more reuseable and much heavier payload regimes. Neat stuff. ~30 years of not much new happening and now we've got a new space race on again. Yay!

    • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 20, @07:13PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 20, @07:13PM (#1214287)

      Unless you are going to at least mach 3 or 4, putting the second stage on a plane just isn't worth it. It's 9km/s to orbit. Even mach 3 is only 10% of the way there. The rocket equation means that's probably 20% of your fuel use, but it's still not enough to justify the complexity of a second stage takeoff from a horizontally flying plane. A disposable (or re-usable) stage one booster is 4 or 5 km/s and 80% of your fuel.

    • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 21, @12:55AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 21, @12:55AM (#1214410)

      The aircraft carrier of Stratolaunch and similar doesn't impart a big amount of energy to the rocket. Its advantage is that you can fly it to whatever latitude is optimal for the trajectory you want to put the satellite into, and you can launch it over international waters where it doesn't really matter where the booster falls. Flying over populated areas is kind of a problem for rockets going south from Cape Canaveral. Not a problem in China though, they just don't worry about it if a rocket booster falls on Beijing.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 20, @08:50PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 20, @08:50PM (#1214332)

    The Shuttle wasn't just an early attempt, it was the worst of the proposed designs. It was only picked for political reasons (got to spread that pork as widely as possible).

  • (Score: 2) by Beryllium Sphere (r) on Thursday January 20, @10:16PM (1 child)

    by Beryllium Sphere (r) (5062) on Thursday January 20, @10:16PM (#1214370)

    "During an interview with Ars, Holder and Radian CEO Richard Humphrey explained that they realized it would require significantly more funding to build such an ambitious orbital space plane."

    "Significantly" is an understatement.

    • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Friday January 21, @12:29AM

      by JoeMerchant (3937) on Friday January 21, @12:29AM (#1214398)

      I worked at a startup that eventually did build and market combined MRI / radiotherapy machines. They were blowing smoke about making the first demostrator machine for $5M. In reality, I believe the investors had put in over $40M before the first prototype came together, and were close on $100M before the first one was placed with a paying customer.

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