The Ultimate Guide to the Emerging Market of Spaceliners 

‘Spaceliners’ may sound rather futuristic, but they could be closer to home than you think. Having easy access to the suborbital regions around Earth for tourism, science and as a method of transportation, either via space planes or rockets, is being actively researched in agencies and commercial organisations.

Spaceliners come in the different shapes of traditional rockets and space planes. Space planes are certainly not a new development: the space shuttle is arguably the most well-known reusable space vehicle that resembles an aeroplane. In addition, there are space planes being developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation (the Dream Chaser) and Virgin Galactic (SpaceShipTwo).

But with a growing business case for suborbital spaceflight – and with better access to advanced technologies – new companies are stepping up in this field. Young players including Japanese Space Walker and German Polaris Raumflugzeuge are being joined by more well-established organisations including German space agency DLR, USA-based Blue Origin (the New Shepard launch vehicle) and British/US company Reaction Engines. Technological advancements allow new players to enter this market and build on a heritage of spaceflight with innovative ‘planes’ and rockets. Spaceliners are building a bridge between aeronautics and space.

Building the business case for suborbital spaceplanes

There is a tremendous effort in the realm of small launch vehicle development. Many organisations aim to become operational soon, including Virgin Orbit, Firefly and Rocket Factory. It is no secret that this market appears to be crowded when it comes to supply vs demand and that there is a need to diversify options and offer flexibility to a variety of markets, rather than just the smallsat industry.

One of the largest business cases for spaceliners is tourism, either to terrestrial destinations or to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. Spaceliners could open up faster commercial access to rapid passenger transportation between major capital cities around the world – one of the most well-known examples being SpaceX’s 2017 announcement about providing a travel service via space, something that was perceived as a large potential market by Swiss bank UBS in 2019.

Another example is instant access to microgravity research, as opposed to waiting for a flight that brings research material to the International Space Station. On top of this, there is a case to be made for prolonged human spaceflight training in microgravity, as suborbital planes could allow for a longer training time than on parabolic flights. Meanwhile, these services could become a so-called ‘taxi’ to low Earth orbit (LEO) and deliver cargo and people to stations in this orbit. The options and services are expanding beyond the launch of small satellites.

Technology challenges

Although there is increasing positivity around the potential capabilities of this emerging market, technological development remains a major point of discussion – especially if the vehicles carry humans. Affordable engines, lightweight but strong materials, advanced avionics and infrastructure development are only some of the main challenges in making this happen. Technology has greatly advanced since the 1960s (when the supersonic Concorde and Tupolev Tu-144 were designed and manufactured, and when the initial design and research for the space shuttle was conducted) and there are many takeaways that can be used for the development of new space planes and other spaceliners.

Easy access to the stratosphere and beyond

As reported by Bryce Space and Technology in September 2019, there are 77 announced, planned and operational launch sites across the globe. In the European region alone, there are nine newly proposed launch sites within the UK, Portugal (Azores) and Spain (Canary Islands), alongside two already operational sounding rocket sites in Norway (Andøya Space Center) and Sweden (Esrange). Meanwhile, there are talks of opening spaceports in Germany and Italy (Grottaglie). The possibility for launch sites to include horizontal take-off and landing has been described as an emerging capability in this field.

 Keen to learn more about the developments regarding spaceliners? Visit the Future Mission Enablers day at the free-to-attend Industry Conference at Space Tech Expo Europe on Thursday, 21 November, and join the panel When Air Meets Space: Outlining the Potential of Spaceliners for New End-User Industries with speakers from Reaction Engines, DLR, Space Walker and Polaris Raumflugzeuge.