Leonard David, SPACE.com's Insider Columnist
Date: 20 December 2012 Time: 12:42 PM ET
The Virgin Galactic suborbital SpaceShipTwo has completed a key flight test at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California — an on-the-fly appraisal that serves as an important precursor to upcoming hot-engine flights using its hybrid rocket motor.
After a high-altitude release from the WhiteKnightTwo mothership, SpaceShipTwo was piloted to a smooth runway touchdown Wednesday (Dec. 19), scoring a successful test drop and checking off a number of milestones.
"Today was a big step closer to first powered flight," said George Whitesides, CEO and president of Virgin Galactic, a spaceliner firm backed by British entrepreneur Richard Branson.
"We had a variety of systems newly installed on the vehicle," Whitesides told SPACE.com. "The most important were the components of the rocket system, including all the flight-ready tanks and valves. But we also flew with flight-ready thermal protection materials on the leading edges of the vehicle for the first time," he said.
More work to do
Virgin Galactic were pleased to see that the vehicle, under the steady hand of pilot Mark Stucky, retained its excellent flight characteristics.
"We still have a bit more work to do before we will be ready to ignite the rocket, including two more glide flights," Whitesides said. "2013 will be a big year," he said.
According to veteran Mojave Air and Space Port tarmac watcher Bill Deaver, SpaceShipTwo landed just before 8 a.m. PST under "crystal clear Mojave dawn skies," he told SPACE.com. "It looked like they tried a new, long, high key pattern of one circuit around the field rather than the former, shorter circuit on landing."
The price per seat for a SpaceShipTwo space traveler is $200,000 — so there's still time to start saving your money!
Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.
How Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Passenger Space Plane Works (Infographic)
by Karl Tate
Date: 10 October 2012 Time: 11:50 AM ET
Variable-geometry rudders can be “feathered” – rotated up 90 degrees – to increase drag and control vehicle yaw. The ship’s rocket engine fires for 70 seconds to boost the vehicle to maximum altitude.
SpaceShipTwohas a crew of two and carries six passengers. The craft’s length is 60 feet (18.3 meters), with a wingspan of 27 feet (8.3 meters).
The vehicle is air-launched from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane at 50,000 feet altitude (15.5 kilometers). After separating, SpaceShipTwo fires its rocket engine for 70 seconds to accelerate to 2,500 mph (4,000 km/h).
The booster rocket shuts down and the craft coasts higher. Passing 328,000 feet (100 km), the passengers cross the Karman Line where fliers are considered astronauts. The craft reaches its highest altitude, 361,000 feet (110 km). Passengers experience five minutes of weightlessness.
SpaceShipTwo’s rudders are configured in “feathered” mode for re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere to increase drag and reduce heating from friction.
At 70,000 feet (22.9 kilometers) the rudders are de-feathered into gliding configuration. Landing gear and skid are deployed for landing on a conventional runway.
- Rise of SpaceShipTwo: Virgin Galactic's Test Flights Photos
- How Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Passenger Space Plane Works (Infographic)
- Virgin Galactic’s Private SpaceShipTwo Test Flights & Trials
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