Virgin Galactic rolls out new spacecraft

WhiteKnightTwo, which features extensive use of carbon fiber composites, will carry SpaceShipTwo to suborbital altitudes.

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Virgin Galactic (Las Cruces, N.M.) and Scaled Composites (Mojave, Calif.) on July 28 rolled out the new WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft that will ferry SpaceShipTwo and thousands of private astronauts, science packages and payload in the first stage of the Virgin Galactic sub-orbital space experience. The introduction was hosted by Virgin's Sir Richard Branson and SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites.
 
The rollout represents another major milestone in Virgin Galactic’s quest to launch the world’s first private, environmentally benign, space access system for people, payload and science.

WK2, christened Mothership Eve, is the world’s largest all-carbon fiber composite aircraft and many of its component parts have been built using composite materials for the very first time. At 140 ft/42.7m, the wing spar is the longest single carbon composite aviation component ever manufactured.

WK2, according to Virgin, has a unique heavy-lift, high-altitude capability and an open architecture-driven design that provides for maximum versatility in the weight, mass and volume of its payload potential. It has the power, strength and maneuverability to provide for pre-space flight, positive G force and zero G astronaut training, as well as a lift capability that is more than 30 percent greater than that represented by a fully crewed SpaceShipTwo. The vehicle has a maximum altitude more than 50,000 ft/15,240m and its U.S. coast-to-coast range will allow the spaceship to be ferried on long-duration flights.

An all-carbon composite vehicle of this size represents a big leap for a material technology that has already been identified as a key contributor to the requirement by the commercial aviation sector for dramatically more fuel-efficient aircraft. The WK2 is powered by four Pratt and Whitney PW308A engines.

The twin fuselage and central payload area configuration allow for easy access to WK2 and to the spaceship for passengers and crew; the design also aids operational efficiencies and turnaround times. WK2 will be able to support up to four daily space flights, is able to carry out both day and night time operations and is equipped with a package of advanced avionics.

SpaceShipTwo, itself still under construction but almost complete, was said to be clearly visible but heavily shrouded but visible during the WK2 rollout. SpaceShipTwo is expected to be completed in 2009. WK2 will take its first flight in fall 2008.

“WhiteKnightTwo represents the apogee of the application of carbon composites to aerospace and all of us at Scaled are tremendously excited at the capabilities of the Mothership for SpaceShipTwo," said Rutan. "I believe the vehicle will be developed and sold for a variety of launch applications beyond the initial requirements of our launch customer, Virgin Galactic.  We have set up a new business jointly with Virgin, The Spaceship Company (TSC), to develop these vehicles and we very much hope that its efficiency will herald a wake up call to the aerospace industry and the necessity of using new materials and technologies in the future. “