Virgin Galactic has taken one giant step closer to making their commercial space travel dream a reality. The aircraft SpaceShipTwo (SS2) successfully completed the third test flight and soared to a record 71,000 feet above California’s Mojave Desert.
The first version of the SS2, SpaceShipOne (SS1), successfully took a pilot to space and back to Earth three times in 2004. At that time it was the first privately manned spacecraft. The SS1 won the $10 million dollar jackpot for the X-Prize race-to-space competition that year and the SS1 is now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
The Virgin Galactic SS2 solo flight lasted only 10 minutes before the SS2 made a safe re-entry back to Earth. The spacecraft was carried to an elevation of 46,000 feet by a WhiteKnightTwo aircraft before being detached from under the wing so the SS2 could ignite its rocket and accelerate to supersonic speeds and climb to the test flight’s final elevation.
Virgin Galactic plans to launch into the space tourism industry later this year by offering to sell tickets on SS2 for $250,000 to anyone rich enough to afford them. Even though no firm date has been announced by Virgin Galactic for the SS2’s first commercial space flight, the company has already managed to spawn a number of rumors about celebrities signing up for it. Reportedly, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, and Leonardo DiCaprio have already signed up for a seat. The reusable SS2 is capable of taking a half-dozen people into space and back multiple times per day.
The daredevil owner of Virgin Galactic and British billionaire, Richard Branson, was very delighted at the test’s results. He said that he couldn’t be any happier that the year 2014 is going to be the year that Virgin Galactic finally puts their “beautiful spaceship” in its natural space environment.
The supersonic test flight was flown by Virgin Galactic’s own chief pilot with the SS2 going through the sound barrier and clocking a speed of Mach 1.4 (approximately 1066 miles-per-hour or nearly five football fields per second). The test flight measured and proved that various systems that are required for a safe space fight are properly functioning and working on SS2 at more than acceptable levels.
More specifically the flight tested the SS2’s reaction control system. The system is what controls and manoeuvres the SS2 in space. Another part of the test flight involved an experiment of the thermal protection coating which was newly installed on the SS2’s tail booms. It was reported that all tests were successfully completed.
The SS2 was successfully flown by Virgin Galactic’s test pilots, Dave Mackay and Mark Stucky. After a short free fall from being dropped like a bomb off of the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, Mackay and Stucky engaged the SS2’s hybrid rocket motor for only 16 seconds to achieve the Mach 1.4 speeds. The SS2’s hybrid motor is powered by nitrous oxide and a rubber compound.
This was Mackay’s first powered flight of the SS2 since leaving his job at Branson’s Virgin Atlantic airline. Mackay says that he’ll never forget the feeling when the rocket of the spacecraft ignited. He also said that he thought the SS2 flew “brilliantly.”
The successful test flight of the SS2 by Virgin Galactic solidifies the fact that the company is still on track to deliver the first commercial space travel flight later in 2014. At that time the SS2 will be dropped from the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft from a height of 50,000 feet and ignite its rocket to accelerate to nearly 2,500 mph to reach a final height of over 60 miles above the surface of Earth. Passengers on the flights will be able see the curvature of the Earth and experience the weightlessness of being in space before gliding safely back to Earth.
By Brent Matsalla