How Private Space Companies Could Boost Scientific Research in Space


Virgin Galactic, one of the leading private space companies, made history on August 22, 2023, when it launched its first commercial spaceflight from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The flight carried three crew members from the Italian air force and the National Research Council of Italy, who conducted research on microgravity during the 90-minute suborbital flight. The crew experienced about four minutes of weightlessness and reached an altitude of 86 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.

The flight was part of a contract between Virgin Galactic and the Italian Air Force, which aims to advance scientific and technological research in space. The crew performed experiments on human physiology, fluid dynamics, and materials science, using equipment provided by the Italian space agency ASI and the European Space Agency ESA. The flight also marked the first time that an Italian woman, aerospace engineer Alessandra Buoni, flew to space.

How Private Space Companies Could Boost Scientific Research in Space
How Private Space Companies Could Boost Scientific Research in Space

Virgin Galactic’s founder Sir Richard Branson congratulated the crew and said that the flight was a milestone for the company and the space industry. He also said that Virgin Galactic was committed to making space more accessible and affordable for researchers, educators, and explorers.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard Flights

Another private space company that has been making headlines is Blue Origin, founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin has been launching its reusable suborbital rocket New Shepard, which can carry up to six passengers to the edge of space. The rocket reaches an altitude of about 100 kilometers and provides about three minutes of microgravity for the passengers.

Blue Origin has also been flying scientific payloads on its New Shepard flights, in collaboration with NASA and other organizations. The payloads include experiments on biology, physics, astronomy, and medicine, which benefit from the brief exposure to microgravity and high-altitude environment. Some of the experiments that have flown on New Shepard are:

  • A plant growth chamber developed by NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which tests how plants respond to microgravity and radiation.
  • A lunar landing sensor developed by NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which demonstrates how to use lidar and optical cameras to guide a spacecraft to a safe landing on the moon.
  • A student experiment from the University of Florida, which studies how microgravity affects the behavior of slime mold, a simple organism that can form complex networks.

Blue Origin’s CEO Bob Smith said that the company was proud to support scientific research and education in space. He also said that Blue Origin was working to enable more frequent and affordable access to space for researchers and students.

The Potential of Private Space Companies for Science

Private space companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin could provide a significant boost to the speed and frequency of space research projects, according to Moran Bercovici, a mechanical engineering professor at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. Bercovici is involved in the Fluidic Telescope Experiment (FLUTE) with NASA, which aims to revolutionize space astronomy.

Bercovici explained how his team at the Technion has been working with private space company Axiom Space to conduct experiments on the International Space Station. Last year, Axiom’s Ax-1 mission was described as the first private mission to the ISS. During the mission, Israeli commercial astronaut Eytan Stibbe conducted an experiment on fluidic space optics for the Technion, in collaboration with NASA as part of the FLUTE project.

“He created lenses in space using our technology,” Bercovici said. FLUTE’s long-term goal is to create a soccer-field-sized space telescope that could be used to image exoplanets outside our solar system.

Bercovici said he also sees opportunities to speed up the process of getting experiments into space using shorter flights where astronauts spend just a few minutes in microgravity. He said that some experiments could be done in three minutes or less, which could be possible with suborbital flights like those offered by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.

“They make space more accessible to research teams around the world,” he said. “In the future, the private companies have all the incentives to streamline this – you can quickly go from idea to experiment in space.”

“I am very happy that the companies are making these links with science,” Bercovici added.


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