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Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and the Kármán Line

Luis Perez

Luis Perez

AERTEC / Information Technology

Before reaching space, Man first had to learn how to fly. Before 1900, several attempts were made by pioneers in the field with varying levels of success, but it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the knowledge and technology came together to be able to claim that we could fly. It was precisely at that time that the Wright brothers built an aircraft capable of rising during flights that lasted between 12-20 seconds, travelling a distance of between 30-50 metres. Several inventors, engineers and aeronautics enthusiasts began to improve what these restless brothers had shown the world.

Regardless of the debate on whether the flights are spaceflights or not, the efforts of Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have resparked the interest in space travel.

In 1914 the Vlaicu III was built, the first aircraft to replace wood with metal in the structure. The jet engine was invented in the 1930s, marking a significant breakthrough. Commercial flights already existed before World War II, a period of great progress, but when it broke out major airlines, such as Air France or Greater Japanese Airways, had to close. Once World War II was over, commercial flights again experienced a boom, becoming the safest means of transportation for people and the basis for sectors as important as tourism and fast freight transport.

In the 21st century, the aviation sector focused on two fundamental pillars: the continuous improvement of the passenger’s experience and the reduction of its carbon footprint.

However, the tourism linked to air transport is willing to go one step further since companies are working towards flying beyond the limits of the atmosphere. This is the case of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s owner, has completed its first flight with its New Shepard spacecraft, named after the first American astronaut to travel to space, Alan Shepard. On the other hand, Richard Branson’s company Virgin Galactic has also set a precedent for commercial galactic flights.

Following both flights, there has been much debate about whether Virgin’s flight was really made into space or not. All of this is due to something that many had not heard of before: the Kármán Line.

What is the Kármán Line?

The FAI (World Air Sports Federation) decided to give it this name after Theodore von Kármán, an aeronautical engineer who tried to delimit a space frontier. In his publications, the author calculated its approximate altitude at 100 kilometres, because, as he explained, an aircraft has to fly faster in order to stay in the air above that altitude. At that altitude, the atmosphere does not provide sufficient support to keep aircraft flying, that is, a conventional commercial or military aircraft would not be able to fly.

In short, the Kármán Line is an international convention that sets a boundary between the atmosphere (with a strong influence from Earth) and space. According to the scientific community, space is considered to have been reached after exceeding this altitude.

On the other hand, and here is the debate, NASA estimates that space is reached once exceeding an altitude of 80 kilometres from the land surface, that is, where the mesosphere ends.

The debate on whether Virgin’s flight was a spaceflight or not is based on this difference in criteria. As far as NASA is concerned, it was a spaceflight, but for the scientific community, it was short of a few kilometres. Blue Origin exceeded both limits as it reached 106 kilometres, whereas Virgin stayed at around 85 kilometres high.

Besides the debate on whether they were spaceflights or not, there are other very significant differences between the aircraft used by both companies. The windows of the New Shephard (Blue Origin) spacecraft are large, whereas those of Virgin Galactic are smaller, the typical ones currently seen in commercial aircraft. Blue Origin states that they provide a higher quality passenger experience due to having a wider field of view.

Another aspect that differentiates both aircraft is the safety system. VSS Unity features conventional entry and exit doors, which can be found on any current aircraft, while the New Shephard has an escape system that is accessible from the centre of the capsule.

For the purposes of developing both space programmes, Virgin Galactic has only completed three flights above 80 kilometres, whereas the New Shephard already has 15 flights under its belt.

What is true is that both companies will be the first that will fight for flying civilian passengers into space. Apparently, the first trips will cost around $250,000, certainly not for everyone, but it is possible that demand will increase over time and prices will drop. However, let’s not entertain any illusions, they will never come to what a Ryanair ticket costs.

Jeff Bezos’ goal, as well as NASA’s and the European Space Agency’s, is to colonise the Moon and open a door to exploit its energy resources and proceed to relocate factories. The Amazon founder’s idea is to leave this planet and allow it to improve, as we are exhausting its natural resources. Richard Branson’s goal is another one, as his effort focuses on opening the experience of a space trip to as many people as possible.

Obviously, what is most relevant in these experiences is that private companies are already reliably flying into space. And, that is a major success.

 

Earth view from space

 

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