News From Space… ShipTwo!

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flightVirgin 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).

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-6According 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).

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-1Naturally, the CEO and founder, Sir Richard Branson, chose to mark the occasion with some choice words:

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.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2And 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:


Source: gizmag.com

Eyes on the Sky: The X-51A Goes Hypersonic!

x-51aWhen it comes to high-tech flight, hypersonic is the undisputed way of the future. Not only is it the next logical step in the long chain from the Wright Brothers to supersonic flight (which humanity achieved in 1947), it is sort of a prerequisite in order for commercial space travel to take place. And on May 1st, the US Air Force tested its latest concept vehicle for going hypersonic, known as the X-51A Waverider.

The test took place at Edwards Air Force Base in California, when a B-52H Stratofortress carried the scramjet to a height of 15,000 meters (50,000 feet) and then released it. A solid rocket booster then kicked in and brought the X-51A to a speed of Mach 4.8 in just 26 seconds. The solid rocket booster then separated and the X-51A’s air-breathing supersonic combustion ramjet – or scramjet – engine pushed it up the rest of the way to Mach 5.1 and up to an altitude of 18,300 meters (60,000 feet).

x-51a_specsFour minutes later, its fuel supply was spent and the scramjet nosed down, finally crashing (as planned) into the Pacific Ocean. The previous air speed record for manned flight is just under Mach 3, making this a rather large leap forward. In addition, in just over six minutes, the scramjet traveled over 425 kilometers (264 miles), making it the longest air-breathing hypersonic flight ever.

In addition to being record-breaking, it also tested out an important concept which may soon get more of us here on Earth into orbit. Considering the cost of sending a single rocket into space, concepts for a reusable space craft that could break the Earth’s gravitational pull, fly itself into high-earth orbit, and then land again have been under review for some time. All that was missing was an engine that could accomplish the kind’s of speeds needed without relying on criminally-fuel efficient rockets.

skylon-orbit-reaction-enginesNeedless to say, this is a difficult task, since maintaining airspeed above mach 2 is a serious challenge. This is due to the fact that at these speeds, its very difficult for jet engines to continue to intake air. What makes the X-51A special is the fact that it has no moving parts. Whereas scramjets of the past used hydrogen fuel which would be injected into a combustion chamber and mixed with incoming air, the X-51A differs in that it uses a hydrocarbon fuel as sort of a pilot light, effectively“lighting a match in a hurricane.”

This apparently makes more sense logistically, and therefore could allow the technology to be applied on a broader scale. As it stands, this test involved the last of four X-51As to be constructed, the previous tests having taken place between 2004 and 2012. No plans exist for the construction of future X-51A vehicles, perhaps because the program cost a staggering $300 million. Nevertheless, Air Force officials indicated that the Waverider has left a valuable legacy.

And certainly think so! Not only has the Waverider established a new air speed record, and set a hypersonic distance record, it has also taken an important step as far as the next generation of space flight is concerned. In time, and perhaps in conjunction with rocket boosters, we could be seeing commercial spacecraft capable of breaking the atmosphere very soon.

Think of it, aerospace flights making deliveries to the ISS, and perhaps even beyond… Also, check out the video of the X-51A below making it’s historic, record-breaking flight:


Sources:
singularityhub.com, space.com