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Starfighters Tested at Kennedy
Starfighter jet.

Pilot Rick Svetkoff sits in the cockpit of a Starfighters, Inc. F-104 supersonic jet before conducting a high speed taxi test at the Shuttle Landing Facility. Image credit: NASA/Gianni M. Woods
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Plans to launch small satellites into orbit from the wings of a supersonic jet are moving along following a taxi test on the runway at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Starfighters, Inc. F-104 rolled to a stop Oct. 27 at the Shuttle Landing Facility after the supersonic aircraft conducted a high-speed taxi test. Piloted by Rick Svetkoff, the F-104 reached speeds of 150 mph as it taxied up and down the runway. The test was carried out to evaluate a newly developed suborbital vehicle that has the potential to carry nanosatellites into low Earth orbit. Commercial carriers like Starfighters, Inc., want to provide a convenient, reasonably priced option for universities and scientific institutions to build and launch missions.

Starfighters, Inc. of Clearwater, Fla., through a cooperative Space Act Agreement, is based at the landing facility. This business partnership furthers the research and development of commercial space industries at Kennedy. Starfighter's fleet of F-104 supersonic jets, similar to those NASA started using in the 1960's with Project Mercury, are helping usher in a new age of commercial spaceflight.

The taxi test was conducted to verify the aeronautical conditions of Star Lab. This is the first of eight tests the launch vehicle will undergo. The final flight test will use a simulated mock-up vehicle and will be flown over the Atlantic Ocean. After the booster separates, a parachute will carry the payload for splashdown. Sensors and recorders are encapsulated in each launch vehicle tested and data will be analyzed for the build up to the next test. 4Frontiers is aiming for tests to be completed by early 2012, with commercial flights starting mid-2012.

Star Lab has the potential to carry four to 13 payloads per flight. 4Frontiers is hoping to launch 10 rockets per year with multiple payloads, or more than 100 payloads per year. The company is trying to keep the costs as low as possible and charges will include flight integration and return of payload to owner.

The Star Lab suborbital launch vehicle tested was developed by 4Frontiers Corporation, a Florida company founded in 2005. 4Frontiers has commercially partnered with Starfighters, Inc., which will provide F-104 jets as flight platforms to air launch Star Lab. 4Frontiers is an emerging space commerce business focused on developing fundamental space-related capabilities and resources essential for long-duration space flight.

The design and building of Star Lab is a collaborative effort between 4Frontiers and students from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Central Florida. The launch vehicle was designed using funds awarded by the Florida Space Grant Consortium. Star Lab supports scientific education for students by offering a physical, hands-on learning environment. The launch vehicle is designed by students and built by students.

The success of the launches of Star Lab has the potential to open new avenues of research and education for scientists and universities as demand for suborbital launch capability is expected to grow.

The ultimate success of commercial flight projects like Starfighters and 4Frontiers paves the way for expanding future use of the Shuttle Landing Facility and furthers commercial research flights from Kennedy.

Melanie Carlson
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center