Virgin Galactic Completes Third Rocket Powered Flight

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Virgin Galactic successfully completed it’s third rocket powered test flight over the Mojave desert today. At approximately 7:20 a.m. SpaceShipTwo (SS2) left it’s hanger at Spaceport America in New Mexico for its third rocket powered flight. It was hauled to a launch altitude of 46,000 ft. by the mule aircraft, WhiteNightTwo (WK2), an unusual double fuselage aircraft that carries the SS2 under its central wing like an intergalactic bomb.

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WK2 with SS2 attached under the central wing

Piloting the WK2 was Mike Masucci and Mike Alsbury. When the desired altitude was reached SS2 was released and Chief Pilot Dave Mackay ignited the rocket motor. He and fellow pilot, Mark Stucky headed for the suborbital altitude of 71,000 feet. The rocket burn lasted 20 seconds and propelled SS2 to 1.4 times the speed of sound. The rocket, developed by Sierra Nevada Corp. is the world’s largest hybrid rocket and is designed to take Virgin Galactic passengers into space.

Today’s Virgin Galactic flight was the third rocket powered test flight and is significant as it demonstrated the SS2’s final approach to fulfilling its role as a passenger carrying spacecraft. To reach this position, the SS2 has undergone extensive unpowered subsonic glide testing, first without, then with the rocket motor in place. With that testing completed Virgin Galactic has gone on to the rocket phase testing in preparation for the first commercial flights that will put passengers into space later this year, if all goes to plan.

The flight was a success and three areas of attention were put to the test. The first was the Reaction Control System (RCS) which allows pilots to maneuver the craft in space for an optimal viewing experience and help position it for reentry.

The second was an evaluation of a new protective coating applied to the inner tail boom section to ward off heat generated by the rocket. The reflective coating performed as designed.

The third test was of the “feather reentry” system developed by Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites. One of the most challenging aspects of space travel is reentry, the phase when a spacecraft transitions from the weightlessness of space to Earth’s dense atmosphere. Rutan’s simplistic yet very effective approach was inspired by the shuttlecock, something very light in build that creates large amounts of drag due to its design. Rutan took that philosophy and applied it to SS2.

They created a very light spacecraft and gave it a high drag coefficient through the use of a rotating tail section. The section can rotate upwards 65 degrees, which allows the spacecraft to “fall flat,” perpendicular to the earth. As it falls speed is scrubbed off by the v-shaped underbelly of the fuselage which acts like a brake. As it reenters the atmosphere heat is kept to a minimum and once reentry has taken place the tail section rotates to its original position and the reusable spacecraft glides back to earth.

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Spaceport America under construction

Virgin Galactic is part of Richard Branson’s Virgin group and is striving to become the world’s first commercial “Spaceline.” Paying passengers will board the six-passenger SS2 and once it is freed from WK2 will rocket to three and a half times the speed of sound before experiencing the weightlessness of space, followed by a glide back to earth.

Reservations for a trip initially went on sale in 2005. Since then over 600 future astronauts have paid $250,000 for a chance to see the world from space. As Virgin Galactic completes its third rocket powered test flight, their dreams are fast approaching reality.

By Scott Wilson

Sources:

Virgin Galactic
Reuters
Scaled Composites

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