SpaceShipTwo Goes Higher, Faster Than Ever During Test Flight
[ Watch the Video: Virgin Galactic Gets Ready For Commercial Space Flight ]
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is readying for its commercial space flight business in 2014 by completing a second test flight on Thursday, September 5, passing with flying colors.
During this second rocket-powered, supersonic flight the company’s SpaceShipTwo testing craft demonstrated all technical mission phases for the first time, and successfully deployed its unique wing “feathering” reentry mechanism. Not only did the test mission achieve all technical aspects, it also reached its highest altitude and greatest speed to date.
Backed by Abu Dhabi’s aabar Investments PJS, Virgin Galactic had already demonstrated SS2’s capabilities when it broke the sound barrier (reaching Mach 1.2) during its first successful test flight earlier this year.
“It marks the moment when we put together two key elements of our spaceflight system — the spacecraft and its rocket motor, which have both been tested extensively by themselves over several years — and start the phase of testing that will demonstrate our vehicle´s ability to go to space (hopefully later this year),” Branson wrote after that successful test, which occurred on April 29, 2013.
For this second test, the company’s carrier, WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), piloted by Virgin’s Dave Mackay and Scaled Composites’ Mike Alsbury, took off at approximately 8:00 a.m. local time from the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California carrying SS2 to an altitude of 46,000 feet. Once the correct altitude was reached, WK2 released SS2 from its grasp and SS2 pilots Mark Stucky and Clint Nichols, both of Scaled Composites, ignited the ship’s rocket motor for a planned 20-second burn sending the craft to 69,000 feet at a maximum speed of Mach 1.43. The successful test ended with an equally successful landing at 9:25 a.m. demonstrating the craft’s “feathering” technique.
“This flight milestone represents a key step forward for the Virgin Galactic team. The successful completion of all major aspects of the flight mission demonstrates that we are very close to achieving one of Galactic’s key goals: commercializing access to space for the broader public. I would like to congratulate the whole team on their continued success,” said H.E. Khadem Al Qubasi, chairman of aabar Investments PJS.
“We couldn’t be more delighted to have another major supersonic milestone under our belts as we move toward a 2014 start of commercial service,” said Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic.
Branson added: “It was particularly thrilling to see for the first time today the whole elegant system in action during a single flight, including the remarkable feathering re-entry system. It was this safety feature more than anything else that originally persuaded us that the overall design of the system was uniquely fit for purpose. Everything we have seen today just confirms that view. Congratulations to all involved!”
Virgin Galactic’s CEO George Whitesides noted that yesterday’s flight “expanded the SpaceShipTwo rocket-powered flight test envelope with a longer burn duration and robust testing of the feather mechanism, supersonic aerodynamics and wing lift structure.” He added that with each successful flight, the SS2 “yields cumulative progress that builds the foundation for safe and exciting commercial space flights.”
The ultimate goal for Virgin Galactic and its future commercial space flier is to carry human passengers to the edge of space. So far, 580 people have dished out more than $70 million total to be among the first to experience a few moments of weightlessness as they soar 359,040 feet above Earth, during which time they can see the curvature of the Earth as well as the blackness of space.
Of interesting note, the 500th person to sign up for Virgin Galactic’s commercial space flights was none other than Ashton Kutcher, who is known for his bold statement-making moves.
“Our 500th future astronaut customer has just signed up! Even better news is that number 500 is Ashton Kutcher. I gave Ashton a quick call to congratulate and welcome him. He is as thrilled as we are at the prospect of being among the first to cross the final frontier (and back!) with us and to experience the magic of space for himself,” said Branson shortly after Kutcher signed on back in March.
The successful test flights have so far kept Virgin Galactic on track to make the commercial spaceflight goal a reality. If the company can maintain its successfulness, it will become the world’s first viable commercial spaceline when it goes live. Once it does begin carrying humans to the edge of space, the VSS Enterprise and VMS Eve – the spaceships now being designed for the commercial program – would likely make no less than 100 scheduled flights as the ships are constructed to only take six passengers at a time into the far reaches of Earth’s atmosphere.
To put this into perspective, the International Space Station flies about 220 miles above Earth, or about three times higher than what Virgin’s ships will travel. Felix Baumgartner, who last year broke the record for the world’s highest free-fall, jumped out of his capsule at nearly 128,000 feet – nearly three times lower than where Virgin will be traveling.
Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company will be hosting a career fair in Mojave, California this Saturday, September 7, from 8 – 11:00 a.m. PST. Virgin will also be hosting a virtual career fair from 9 – 10:00 a.m. PST at google.com/+VirginGalactic.