Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo breaks speed of sound

SpaceShipTwo completed its first rocket-powered flight, marking the beginning of the craft's final phase of vehicle testing prior to commercial service from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

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Virgin Galactic (Mojave, Calif., USA) reported on April 29 that it has completed the first rocket-powered flight of its space vehicle, SpaceShipTwo (SS2). The test, conducted by teams from Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, officially marks Virgin Galactic’s entrance into the final phase of vehicle testing prior to commercial service from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The test began at 7:02 a.m. local time when SS2 took off from Mojave Air and Space Port mated to WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), Virgin Galactic’s carrier aircraft. Piloting SS2 were Mark Stucky, pilot, and Mike Alsbury, co­pilot, who are test pilots for Scaled, which built SS2 for Virgin Galactic. At the WK2 controls were Virgin Galactic’s Chief Pilot Dave Mackay, assisted by Clint Nichols and Brian Maisler, co­pilot and flight test engineer, respectively, for Scaled.

Upon reaching 47,000 ft/14,325m altitude and approximately 45 minutes into the flight, SS2 was released from WK2. After cross­checking data and verifying stable control, the pilots triggered ignition of the rocket motor, causing the main oxidizer valve to open and igniters to fire within the fuel case. At this point, SS2 was propelled forward and upward to a maximum altitude of 55,000 ft/16,674m. The entire engine burn lasted 16 seconds, as planned. During this time, SS2 went supersonic, achieving Mach 1.2.

“The first powered flight of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was without any doubt, our single most important flight test to date,” says Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson, who was on the ground in Mojave to witness the occasion. “For the first time, we were able to prove the key components of the system, fully integrated and in flight. Today’s supersonic success opens the way for a rapid expansion of the spaceship’s powered flight envelope, with a very realistic goal of full space flight by the year’s end. We saw history in the making today and I couldn’t be more proud of everyone involved.”

The entire rocket-­powered flight test lasted just over 10 minutes, culminating in a smooth landing for SS2 in Mojave at approximately 8:00 a.m. local time.

In the coming months, the Virgin Galactic and Scaled test team will expand the spaceship’s powered flight envelope culminating in full space flight, which the companies anticipate will take place before the end of 2013.

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