Well, technically this news come from the lower atmosphere, but seeing as how the ultimate purpose is to get into space, I think it qualifies. Earlier this week, Virgin Galactic made history when it’s aerospace carrier, SpaceShipTwo, conducted its first powered test flight and broke the sound barrier. As the latest in a long series of successful flights, it shouldn’t be too long before Virgin Galactic conducts its maiden flight and flies actual passengers into low orbit.
The test flight took place on Monday as the plane took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California, not far from where the Bell X-1 piloted by the then Capt. Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in 1947. This latest test comes on the heels of the SS2’s first glide test with its rocket engine on board, which it conducted back in December of 2012, and its first glide flight in 2010.
The flight began after the SS2 was carried to a ceiling of 14,300 meters (47,000 feet) by its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, where it was then released at 7:48 a.m. PDT. Shortly thereafter, pilots Mark Stucky and Mike Alsbury ignited the rocket engine and accelerated to a speed of Mach 1.2 as they climbed to over 17,000 meters (55,000 feet). According to Virgin Galactic, the rocket burn lasted 16 seconds, and demonstrated the efficacy of their engine design.
Granted, in order to get into the realm of the sub-orbital, the engine will have to make longer burns, most likely in the vicinity of 80 or 90 seconds. SS2’s predecessor, SpaceShipOne, had to run its engine this long in order to break the 100 kilometer (328,000 feet) back in 2004, when it reached what the international community holds as the accepted altitude for reaching the soft edge of space.
It’s has been over eight years since Virgin Galactic’s space tourism program began, and though progress has come slower than planned, Branson was nevertheless enthusiastic about the flight test and expressed his feelings on his blog after the flight:
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).
More than 500 people have signed up for sub-orbital rides aboard the six passenger SpaceShipTwo once it becomes operational. Those who go will have the chance to float weightlessly for a few minutes while enjoying the spectacular view of the edge of space. Tickets go for $200,000 a pop, quite the price tag for a plane flight. But in return, those who go will get to experience something only astronauts have ever had the pleasure of.
Richard Branson has said all along that he plans on being on the maiden voyage, something he reiterated after the test flight was done:
Like our hundreds of customers from around the world, my children and I cannot wait to get on board this fantastic vehicle for our own trip to space and am delighted that today’s milestone brings that day much closer.
Check out the video of the SpaceShipTwo conducting its first engine test below: