Looking to return to spaceflight following a fatal 2014 crash, Virgin Galactic’s new spacecraft completed its first successful glide last week, flying free for 10 minutes and reaching speeds of Mach 0.6 after being released mid-flight by a carrier airplane, published reports indicate.
According to the AFP, the new-model SpaceShipTwo known as the VSS Unity was carried into the atmosphere by the WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve as part of a trial conducted at the Mojave Air & Space Port in California to collect data on how the vessel behaves during an actual flight.
The glide flight test marks the first activity for the VSS Unity, while was unveiled in February after the original SpaceShipTwo disintegrated over the Mojave Desert, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold. An investigation determined that premature deployment of the vehicle’s feathering mechanism during flight was to blame.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave its approval for VSS Unity test flights back in August, according to The Verge, and while reports indicate that the spacecraft’s weight was kept light for the Dec. 3 test, it nonetheless marked an important step forward in the Richard Branson-owned company’s return to suborbital flights.
Rocket powered flights not expected to resume until 2017
While Saturday’s test marked the first free-flight for the VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic noted in a statement that it was actually the fifth voyage overall for the spacecraft, which was built by their sister organization, The Spaceship Company. The other four were “captive carry” flights, which means that it was carried by the WhiteKnightTwo for the entire duration.
The VSS Unity was piloted by Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay, while colleagues Mike Masucci and Todd Ericsson flew the WhiteKnightTwo, the company said. The entire flight lasted one hour, 20 minutes, although the spacecraft only experienced 10 minutes of free flight. Next, it will undergo a series of tougher flight tests, leading up to one in which its hybrid rocket motor will be fired.
“This glide flight was the first of many,” Virgin Galactic explained. “We have not yet reached the rocket-powered phase of the test flight program – first we need to gather test flight data to confirm our analyses and calculations about how VSS Unity will perform in a wide variety of real-world flight conditions.”
“As expected, for this first gliding test flight, VSS Unity was flying light and slow, achieving a maximum speed of approximately Mach 0.6 while gliding home from an altitude of 50,000 feet,” they added. “An initial look at the data as well as feedback from our two pilots indicate that today’s flight went extremely well, but we’ll take the time to properly and thoroughly analyze the vehicle’s performance before clearing the vehicle for our next test.”
The company will wait for approval from its engineers before resuming rocket-powered flights, and according to Engadget, that is not likely to happen until sometime in 2017. Ultimately, the goal is to carry six-passenger crews on three-hour suborbital flights, enabling them to experience a momentary feeling of weightlessness and see the Earth from heights of 62 miles (100 km).
Image credit: Virgin Galactic