Virgin Galactic’s founder Sir Richard Branson has been working tirelessly for over a decade now in the hopes of realizing the dream of privatized space travel. And earlier this month, his company once again made history with the second rocket-powered supersonic test flight of its SpaceShipTwo craft. And in the process, it broke its previous records for speed and altitude, bringing it that much closer to its first commercial flight.
The flight test took place last Thursday at 8:00 am PDT, when the SS2 took off slung beneath the WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft from Virgin Galactic’s Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The SS2 was then released from the carrier at 14,000 meters (46,000 ft) and the rocket motor burned for 20 seconds, pushing the spacecraft to an altitude of 21,000 meters (69,000 ft) and a maximum speed of Mach 1.43 (1,752 km/h, 1,088 mph).
According to the company, the tourism spacecraft went through its full technical mission profile in a single flight for the first time, including the deployment of its “feathering” re-entry mechanism at high altitude. This took place after engine shutdown and involved rotating the tail section to vertical, which slows the ship down and allows the shuttle to glide back home. The craft then landed in a controlled, unpowered glide at Mojave at 9:25 AM.
This flight builds on the success of the first rocket-powered supersonic flight that took place on April 29. Designed out of carbon composite, the space craft is powered by a hybrid rocket motor that uses solid rocket fuel and nitrous oxide as an oxidizer. Once test flights are complete, it will begin carrying six passengers on suborbital flights and will also have the option of deploying research equipment such as micro-satellites into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).
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. 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.
Next year, if all goes well, Virgin Galactic will be conducting its first commercial flights, ferrying passengers into low orbit where they will experience several minutes of weightlessness before gliding back to Earth. In this, they are joined by such groups as KLM, Golden Spike and SpaceX in attempting to create the first set of commercial space flights which will one day bring people to and from orbit, and possible even the Moon.
And of course, Virgin Galactic was sure to capture the test flight on tape using a tail camera. It captures the engine burn, and then the near-vertical acceleration, as the craft puts planet Earth in its rear view and heads for atmo! Quite cool! Check it out: