News From Space: SpaceShipTwo Completes First Test Flight!

spaceshiptwo_flightWell, 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.

spaceshiptwoThe 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.

spaceshiponeIt’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:

 

SpaceShipTwo Makes First Flight!

For years, Richard Branson has been promising the world commercial spaceflight with his proposed aerospace line, Virgin Galactic. And with the advent of SpaceShipTwo, the rocket-powered vehicle designed for this end, the company has been promising to conduct a successful test flight by the end of the year. This past Wednesday, Virgin and the development company – Scaled Composites – delivered on that promise, as SS2 conducted its first fully-loaded glide test successfully and landed safe and sound.

Granted, the company has yet to test out the ship’s rocket motor, the propulsion that will be used to put the ship into the Earth’s atmosphere. However, it was the first flight where the space craft was deployed by itself, without assistance from its carrier, WhiteKnightTwo. It was also the first time the vehicle conducted a glide test with all its components and fuel tanks installed. By showing that it is capable of gliding while fully-loaded, Virgin Galactic has proven that SS2 is capable of making safe landings, which is just as important as getting into space when you think about it!

“It was also the first flight with thermal protection applied to the spaceship’s leading edges,” said Virgin in a press statement. “It followed an equally successful test flight last Friday which saw SpaceShipTwo fly in this configuration but remain mated to its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.”

Virgin also claims it intends to conduct two more glide tests before attempting a powered flight, where the rocket motor will be put to the test and the ship will finally acheive suborbital flight. And once all the bugs are ironed out, Virgin Galactic will then be able to finally offer the sub-orbital rides that have been the subject of talk for many years. One of the first to go with be Branson himself, along with five others who will travel aboard SS2 as it acheive a suborbital flight which will take it over 115,000 meters (350,000 feet) above the Earth and acheive weightlessness for the crew.

Source: Wired.com

Skylon: The Future of Commercial Aerospace Flight?

skylonBehold the Skylon! The Mach 5 hypersonic aerospace ship that is the future of commercial flight. Well, that’s the hope anyway, and if a British company known as Reaction Engines Limited get’s its way, it very well could be…

For some time now, hypersonic commercial flight has been batted around as an idea. And with billionaire Richard Branson promising commercial space flight to the world, it seemed like only a matter of time before aerospace flights became the norm. As it turns out, we may be closer than anyone previously thought, thanks to a heralded breakthrough by Reaction Engines.

In a recent statement, the British company claimed they have made “the biggest breakthrough in aerospace propulsion technology since the invention of the jet engine.” In the past, hypersonic flight has been hampered by the problem of propulsion, since at speeds beyond Mach 2, a jet engine has trouble getting the oxygen needed for combustion. Attempts to remedy this have already been made, such as with the SR-71 Blackbird which managed to reach speeds in excess of Mach 3. But for high-altitude and aerospace craft, where Mach 5 and above are essential, the problem remains, as does the issue of the amount of heat generated.

Reaction Engines claims it has solved the problem with a design that could allow a vehicle to take off, reach orbit using a combination of an air-breathing engine and rocket, then return to Earth. The secret is cooling the air as it enters the hypersonic SABRE engine. The air-breathing engine will accelerate a vehicle to about Mach 5.5, according to the company, after which a liquid oxygen tank will supply a rocket engine for the portion of the flight in space. But unlike current space vehicles, there will only be one stage involved for the entire flight thanks to the boost from the SABRE design.

In the same press release, RE claims the “pre-cooler technology is designed to cool the incoming airstream from over 1,000 Celsius to minus 150 Celsius in less than 1/100th of a second, without blocking with frost.” The company further claims to have conducting 100 test runs of the new engine’s cooling system and believes they can begin production of a prototype by 2015. The European Space Agency also says it has evaluated the design and is in negotiations to support further development.

To put it in terms every jetsetter and international traveler can understand, their proposed aerospace craft – known as the Skylon – will allow a passenger to enjoy breakfast in New York City and then lunch in Tokyo. And with a few years and plenty of investment, not just from the ESA, but NASA and the RSA as well, Skylons could be ferrying people all over the world in a matter of hours.

Source: Wired.com

Aerospace Flight!

To say that Richard Branson is an eccentric billionaire or oddball visionary would be the understatement of the century. Though not formally educated in business or economics, he’s got a knack for investing in new and relevant things, and always seems to be able to turn a profit while doing it. So it’s little wonder then why he started Virgin Galactic, a private aerospace company that is offering patrons their first shot at sub-orbital flights.

The idea commercial space ships has been in development for some time, with Branson committing a great deal of his empire’s investment capital and research funds towards this end. In 2008, these efforts bore fruit with the first flight of the White Knight Two launcher craft, known officially as the VMS Eve. This plane, also known as a “mothership”, is a four-engine, twin-fuselage craft with an extended wing base and two air crews. As the name suggests, it acts as a launching platform for the aerospace vehicle itself, which deploys once the WK2 is fully airborne.

Then, in December of 2009, Virgin unveiled the suborbital space ship, known as SpaceShip Two. Ever since 2004, Branson’s company ran test flights using a smaller model, but decided to upgrade to a larger, twin-pilot model for long-term commercial use. By February 2012, SpaceShipTwo had completed 15 test flights and an additional 16 glide tests, the last of which took place in September 2011.

In the end, the process is pretty simple and borrows from NASA’s long-standing practice of launching their space shuttles by piggybacking them onto commercial craft. In this case, the process involves the WK2 flying the SS2 to deployment altitude where it will then be released and take over its own flight using its rocket engines. The SS2 will then fly to an altitude of 100 km (330,000 feet) above see level. After performing a circuit in near-zero gravity, it will deploy its wings and glide back to Earth.

No firm schedule has been given as to when commercial flights will commence, but given the pace at which things are moving, it would not be farfetched to think that they are likely to begin before the decade is out. In addition, no word has been given on when exactly it will affordable for the vast majority of people to use this service, or when aerospace terminals will be built into existing international airports.

As it stands, tickets for the maiden voyage go for a whopping $200,000 US or £121,000, and 400 seats have already been spoken for, largely by public figures and international tycoons. The flight will be two hours end-to-end, and will involve six minutes of weightlessness once its reaches maximum altitude. Seems like a lot of money for something that only lasts six minutes; but hey, people have spent way more on far less!

Also, check out the promotional video from Virgin Galactic’s own website. I think you’ll agree, though they may oversell the significance of this by just a bit, the production values are still pretty damn good!