Planetary Science Institute Selects XCOR to Fly Atsa Suborbital Observatory
Tuesday, July 12 2011, Mojave, CA, USA: The Planetary Science Institute (PSI) and XCOR Aerospace have signed a Memorandum of Understanding that lays the groundwork for flying the human-operated Atsa Suborbital Observatory aboard XCOR's Lynx spacecraft.
The Atsa project will use crewed reusable suborbital spacecraft equipped with a specially designed telescope to provide low-cost space-based observations above the contaminating atmosphere of Earth, while avoiding some operational constraints of satellite telescope systems.
"The XCOR vehicle design and capabilities work well for hosting the kind of observing facility we are developing," said PSI Senior Scientist Faith Vilas, the Atsa Project Scientist.
The Atsa Suborbital Observatory was invented by Vilas and Luke Sollitt, a PSI affiliate scientist who is a professor at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. Vilas, who leads the Atsa project, is a long-time planetary astronomer who recently retired as director of the MMT Observatory (a joint facility of the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Arizona) before joining PSI. Sollitt, the Atsa Deputy Project Scientist, was formerly staff scientist at Northrop Grumman Corp.
"NASA has been flying suborbital observatories for decades, on unmanned, disposable rockets. The new manned, reusable commercial platforms will allow us to make repeated observations with a single instrument, but without the need to refurbish it between flights," Sollitt said. "In addition, the short turn-around means we can do many observations or targets."
Atsa means "eagle" in the Navajo language. The facility is optimized for observing solar system objects near the sun that are difficult to study from orbital observatories such as Hubble and ground-based telescopes.
"These are natural targets for instruments on suborbital rockets to observe, but a human-tended facility using the kind of reusable launch vehicle offered by XCOR offers significant cost savings," said Mark Sykes, CEO and Director of PSI, who is also a long-time planetary astronomer and is training to be an Atsa operator.
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The Planetary Science Institute is a private, nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation dedicated to solar system exploration. It is headquartered in Tucson, Ariz. where it was founded in 1972. PSI scientists are involved in numerous NASA and international missions, the study of Mars and other planets, the Moon, asteroids, comets, interplanetary dust, impact physics, the origin of the solar system, extra-solar planet formation, dynamics, the rise of life, and other areas of research. They conduct fieldwork in North America, Australia and Africa. They also are actively involved in science education and public outreach through school programs, children's books, popular science books and art. PSI scientists are based in 15 states, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Russia, Australia and Canada. (www.psi.edu).
XCOR Aerospace is a California corporation located in Mojave, Calif. The company is in the business of developing and producing safer, more reliable and reusable rocket powered vehicles, propulsion systems, advanced non-flammable composites and other enabling technologies. XCOR is working with aerospace prime contractors and government customers on major propulsion systems, and concurrently building the Lynx, a piloted, two-seat, fully reusable, liquid rocket powered vehicle that takes off and lands horizontally, and serves three primary missions: nano-satellite launch, research & scientific missions, and private spaceflight. The Lynx production models (designated Lynx Mark II) are designed to be robust, multi-mission commercial vehicles capable of flying to 100+ km in altitude up to four times per day and are being offered on a wet lease basis. (www.xcor.com).
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