Virgin Galactic completes second rocket flight test

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The company that plans to launch tourists into space at $250,000 per flight has successfully completed the second rocket-powered, supersonic flight of SpaceShipTwo (SS2), its passenger carrying reusable space vehicle.

Virgin Galactic says the commercial spaceplane achieved its highest altitude and greatest speed to date, and also demonstrated high altitude deployment of its wing ‘feathering’ re-entry mechanism.

On September 5, 2013 at approximately 0800 local time, the company’s WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port carrying SS2 to an altitude of 46,000 feet.

Virgin Galactic chief pilot Dave Mackay was at the WK2 controls, assisted by Scaled Composites’ co-pilot Mike Alsbury and The Spaceship Company flight test engineer Scott Glaser.

On release from WK2, SS2 pilots Mark Stucky and Clint Nichols, both of Scaled Composites, ignited the rocket motor for the planned 20-second burn propelling the spaceship to 69,000 feet. During this time, SS2 achieved a maximum speed of Mach 1.43.

‘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 Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson. ‘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.’

Virgin Galactic has developed two types of vehicles, both of which were designed by Scaled Composites. It is now developing a third vehicle for small satellite launch.

  • SpaceShipTwo (SS2) – SS2 is a reusable spaceplane designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. It uses much of the same technology, construction techniques, and basic design of SpaceShipOne, but is twice the size. It was unveiled in December 2009, and test flights began in March 2010. The first rocket-powered supersonic flight of SS2 took place April 29, 2013.
  • WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) – WK2 is the carrier aircraft for both SpaceShipTwo and LauncherOne. It is the largest 100-per cent carbon composite carrier craft ever built. It made its first flight in December 2008.
  • LauncherOne (L1)  – L1 is an expendable launch vehicle designed to launch small satellites into low Earth orbit. It is a two stage rocket powered by liquid rocket engines, and will be air-launched from the WK2 carrier aircraft. LauncherOne was announced in July 2012, and is expected to make its first flight in 2015.

Source: Virgin Galactic

Commercial space exploration technology could enable low-cost access to space for both tourists and scientists. Read Jon Excell’s report here.