Today XCOR begins a full week at the American Geophysical Union’s 46th annual Fall Meeting in San Francisco. We’re talking with Khaki Rodway, Director of Payload Sales and Operations, about the future of research opportunities onboard Lynx as they relate to AGU participants.
Khaki handles all research and education missions onboard Lynx flights. She is the “Your Mission. Our Ship.” side of the XCOR equation.
The XCOR team, including Khaki, will be at booth 245 from Monday, December 9th through Friday, December 13th. Please drop by and say hello!
Bryan Campen: So what is XCOR doing at AGU?
Khaki Rodway: XCOR is at AGU to deliver a glimpse of the emerging opportunities onboard Lynx for anyone involved with atmospheric science, planetary observation or space physics (for instance). These opportunities are new and provided through Lynx, our commercial suborbital vehicle.
So what I am doing this week is talking to scientists about the paradigm shift Lynx provides the AGU community.
BC: For the uninitiated, can you elaborate on that shift, and how Lynx connects with AGU participants?
KR: When it comes to space-based research and observation, scientists now have the ability to get into the field as never before, and get to where they want to go with Lynx.
BC: And what are the main advantages of Lynx for atmospheric scientists, planetary scientists and space physicists?
KR: It’s threefold: First it’s the ability to fly at low cost, which makes high flight rates achievable. Second, the fact that researchers can fly with their experiments will be a game changer. And third, the greatest advantage, the one that makes Lynx so exciting and beneficial to scientists, is that each flight can be entirely dedicated to the scientist’s mission–they don’t have to share their g-profile or pointing profile with other experimenters.
Scientists will be able to gather in-situ measurements at multiple points in the atmosphere or direct a telescope at a specific planetary object, for instance.
BC: Can you give some specific examples of how advances in suborbital space flights will change research and experimentation for the better?
KR: Sure. Take space hardware, where automation is the norm.
Before hardware is ever on orbit you have to know that it’s going to work. Because if it doesn’t work you can’t just go up there and fix it.
But if you can do your calibration tests with a human in the loop and fly frequently at low cost in a relevant environment, you can save yourself time and heartache by knowing that the instrument will work the first time it’s put on a satellite.
If something goes wrong with your hardware, your experiment, you’d like to get your hands on that hardware and fix it… but you can’t. After launch, there is no way to tweak and modify anything. Perhaps months later you’ll retrieve it.
Lynx is designed for low cost, high frequency flights. By comparison–take sounding rockets as an example. Much of the research conducted at this level of the atmosphere currently involves sounding rockets, and those are about ten times the price of a Lynx flight, maybe a few flights per year per experiment.
And this ability for Lynx to fly at such low cost and high frequency makes high flight rates achievable, which is what makes the whole future of suborbital research so attractive. With increased frequency, you have the opportunity to test equipment in-situ and know much more about what to expect well before launch.
With Lynx, we can dial up flights on a couple of hours’ notice, which matters a lot for anyone wanting to perform research at a pace that’s interesting.
BC: OK so that’s low cost and high frequency flights, and in-situ measurements for instrumentation development. How would Lynx be relevant to, for instance, an atmospheric scientist?
KR: Let’s say I’m a researcher who wants to gather data on noctilucent or polar mesospheric clouds. These clouds form spontaneously and hang around for several hours. With Lynx rapid call-up time—Lynx can be ready to fly in 2 hours—it can get me to 80 kilometers before the clouds disappear. That has not been possible until now. If the weather changes and I only have two hours to fly to 80 kilometers, I now know I can do that.
BC: So a researcher can have increased frequency with Lynx, and at a sharp decrease in cost from today’s offerings. What else?
KR: One of the most interesting opportunities on the horizon with Lynx is that Lynx can be used as a dedicated space-based research vehicle that flies a single scientific mission. Much like oceanographers and marine geoscientists have their ocean-going research vessels that go to their areas of investigator interest, Lynx can do the same for space researchers. Space scientists can get into the field, collect samples at a particular altitude in a particular part of the world, or look at specific object in the solar system or area of the Earth when and how they want.
It is my flight, “my” vehicle with a scientific mission.
BC: Last question: What is the “Ignorosphere”.
KR: The Ignorosphere is a phrase scientists use for the Mesosphere/Lower Thermosphere (MLT) region, which is at about 50 to 140 km altitude, and is likely the least sampled and understood region of the Earth’s atmosphere.
It’s the region of the atmosphere where all of this research will happen.
Scientists call it the Ignorosphere because it is above the region accessible for sampling by aircraft and balloons, and below the region of satellite access. Sounding rockets do get into the MLT, but they quickly pass through it.
Lynx is going directly into the MLT, which means scientists can examine up close transition zones such as the mesopause and turbopause, or Earth’s highest clouds known as Polar Mesospheric Clouds (PMC’s), or the regions where solar UV variability has its greatest impact. With Lynx floating in this region for several minutes, scientists now have the ability to do fine scale in-situ sampling of key chemical trace gases, meteoritic dust, isotopes of trace gas elements, water vapor, sulfates, CO2, just as an example. All this can be accomplished frequently, repeatedly, and at an extremely lower cost than existing platforms or capabilities.