Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic – a company aimed at delivering suborbital spaceflights to wannabe space tourists – recently flew their reusable SpaceShipTwo spaceplane to its highest altitude yet, reaching 71,000 feet and a top speed of Mach 1.4. The test flight was performed on Jan. 10, 2014, with the air-launched spaceplane blasting through the sound barrier over California’s Mojave desert.
Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot, Dave Mackay, was at the helm of the test flight, along with a test pilot from Scaled Composites – SpaceShipTwo’s designer and creator. The pair guided the rocket-powered commercial spaceliner to the maximum altitude achieved, thus far. In doing so, SpaceShipTwo reached 1.4 times the speed of sound – just over 760 miles per hour.
Takeoff occurred at 10:22 a.m. EST (15:22 GMT) from Mojave Air and Space Port, with the rocket-fuelled spaceplane carried aloft by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier. After climbing to an altitude of 46,000 feet, WhiteKnightTwo released the commercial spaceplane. SpaceShipTwo then ignited its rocket motor, constructed by Sierra Nevada Corp., burning for a total duration of 20 seconds; this propelled the spaceplane to faster than the speed of sound.
The occasion represented the third successful voyage made by SpaceShipTwo, with the first rocket-powered flight having taken place in April of last year. Virgin Galactic has also conducted over two dozen “glide flights” with the vehicle, first beginning during late 2010.
Mackay, along with copilot Mark Stucky, tested the reaction control system, which will be used to maneuver the craft to provide its future passengers with an enhanced view of Earth. In addition, the thermal protection coating on SpaceShipTwo’s tail booms was also tested for the very first time. Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Officer George Whitesides described the flight as a “resounding success,” before going on to praise Mackay’s piloting abilities:
“We focused on gathering more transonic and supersonic data, and our chief pilot, Dave, handled the vehicle beautifully. With each flight test, we are progressively closer to our target of starting commercial service in 2014.”
In light of the latest flight, company officials remain optimistic over ambitions to deploy their commercial space tours, which are slated for inauguration later this year. Sir Richard Branson released a statement, describing his excitement upon learning of the mission’s success:
“I couldn’t be happier to start the New Year with all the pieces visibly in place for the start of full space flights 2014 will be the year when we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space.”
Tickets for a seat on SpaceShipTwo will cost a handsome $250,000 each. This charge recently experienced a price hike of 25 percent to reflect changes in inflation. However, the price point is expected to remain fixed at $250,000 for the first 1,000 travelers.
The vehicle was designed to carry a maximum of eight individuals, including two pilots and six passengers. Paying customers will not complete a full Earth orbit; however, they will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and bear witness to breathtaking views of the Earth’ surface, before reentering the atmosphere and gliding back onto the runway.
Aside from space tourism, Branson has also expressed an interest in deploying SpaceShipTwo to further scientific endeavors. Since the spaceplanes have been designed to ensure simple removal of each vehicle’s seats, there will be plenty of room available for installation of scientific equipment.
During the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, last year, Virgin Galactic executive Will Pomerantz explained that NASA had already chartered the plane and was ready to “… get their test flights conducted…” Pomerantz ruminated over the possibility of using the spaceplanes for exploration of various areas of scientific research, ranging from atmospheric chemistry to space weather studies.
The cost of chartering a SpaceShipTwo spaceplane, for the purposes of scientific research, would equate to the cost of an entire plane’s worth of passengers embarking on a commercial flight.
By James Fenner