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Planetary camera successfully fitted to Lynx spaceplane

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Sep 7, 2012, 23:00 UTC

Sen—Planetary scientists have demonstrated how a new breed of private spacecraft will be used to perform observations of the Solar System.

They successfully attached a test model of a camera to the Lynx Mark I spaceplane that XCOR Aerospace is developing to carry passengers, one at a time, on sub-orbital flights to a height of around 100 km (65 miles).

Those astronauts might be wealthy space tourists or scientists heading above the atmosphere to carry out research missions. They will sit alongside the pilot on the flights.

The latest advance came when scientists from the Planetary Science Institute and some of their students visited XCOR Aerospace in Mojave, California. There they fitted the Atsa Suborbital Observatory Mark I camera inside an engineering model of the Lynx Mark I spacecraft. Atsa means Eagle in the Native American Navajo language.

When flights begin for real, a Lynx will be fitted with a specially designed telescope, as shown in the illustration from XCOR above, that can carry our relatively low-cost observations on the sky while avoiding the turbulence of the atmosphere which affects ground-based astronomy.

The scientists say another advantage of the spaceplane over satellite observatories is that they will be able to turn it to observe targets that are close to the Sun. Observations will begin as soon as the spaceplane's main engine is cut off.

The team that created the Atsa camera - PSI Senior Scientist Faith Vilas and PSI Associate Research Scientist Luke Sollitt - hailed the cooperation that they enjoyed with XCOR's design engineers in fitting it to the Lynx.

Vilas said: "The visit to XCOR was to do a first fit test of the Atsa Armrest Camera, which is the engineering test bed for the Atsa Suborbital Observatory. The test was very successful - the AAC will indeed fit into the Lynx cockpit and be useable."

Inventors with Atsa space camera

Co-inventors Faith Vilas and Luke Sollitt prepare the Atsa Armrest Camera for use on-board XCOR’s Lynx

The AAC is a small, hand-guided version of the camera to demonstrate how celestial targets, such as Mercury and Venus, can be acquired and tracked on the Lynx flights.

Sollitt said: “We learned a great many lessons about payload accommodation on the Lynx, about the integration process, and about what changes we need to incorporate to finish a flight-ready instrument. We look forward to returning in a few months with the next version of the AAC to do fit testing with the flight cockpit."

The Planetary Science Institute and XCOR have signed a Memorandum of Understanding that will see the Atsa camera flown on XCOR's current and future models of Lynx.

XCOR's Chief Operating Officer Andrew Nelson said: "Atsa is a true reflection of what Lynx and XCOR are all about, and that’s why we enjoy partnering with them. Lynx will be known for aircraft-like operations; no engine overhaul or vehicle restoration between flights. In the end, more flights for less money equal many more observations."

As Sen reported earlier this year, another role for Lynx will be to prepare travellers for orbital flights being offered by another space business, Excalibur Almaz, based on the Isle of Man.

XCOR says its first sub-orbital flight will take place later this year or early in 2013 and the company hopes to operate several flights per day by 2015.