While the rocket launch sector is quickly becoming crowded, the same can’t be said for companies developing suborbital spaceplanes. This means there’s plenty of room to grow for startups like Dawn Aerospace, which has now completed five test flights of its Mk-II Aurora spaceplane that is designed to fly up to 60 miles above the Earth’s surface.
The flights, which took place at the Glentanner Aerodrome in New Zealand’s South Island in July, were to assess the vehicle’s airframe and avionics. While the vehicle only reached altitudes of 3,400 feet, the flights allowed Dawn’s team to capture “extensive data enabling further R&D on the capability of Mk-II,” CEO Stefan Powell said in a statement.
Dawn’s approach is to build a vehicle that can take off and land from conventional airports and potentially perform multiple flights to and from space per day. The obvious benefit of this approach is that it’s significantly less capital-intensive than vertical launches. Mk-II is also barely the size of a compact car, less than 16 feet long and weighing only 165 pounds empty, which further lowers costs.
As the name suggests, the Mk-II is the second iteration of the vehicle, but Dawn doesn’t plan on stopping there. The company has plans to build a two-stage-to-orbit Mk-III spaceplane that can also be used to conduct scientific research, or even capture atmospheric data for weather observations and climate modeling. While Mk-II has a payload of 3U, or less than 8.8 pounds, Mk-III will be capable of carrying up to 551 pounds to orbit.
The Mk-II will ultimately be fitted with a rocket engine to enable supersonic performance and high-altitude testing.
The company hit a major milestone last December when it received an Unmanned Aircraft Operator Certificate from the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority to fly Mk-II from airports. It also received a grant from by the province of Zuid-Holland in the Netherlands, along with Radar Based Avionics and MetaSensing, to test a low-power sense and detect radar system. That demonstration, which is scheduled to take place next year, will happen once Mk-II undergoes some minor modifications, Powell told TechCrunch.