Virgin Galactic (Mojave, Calif.), the world’s first commercial spaceline, owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s aabar Investments PJS, reported on Jan. 10 the successful completion of the third rocket-powered supersonic flight of its passenger-carrying reusable space vehicle, SpaceShipTwo (SS2).
In command on the flight deck of the composites-intensive SS2 for the first time under rocket power was Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot Dave Mackay. Mackay, along with Scaled Composites’ (Scaled) Test Pilot Mark Stucky, tested the spaceship’s Reaction Control System (RCS) and the newly installed thermal protection coating on the vehicle’s tail booms. All of the test objectives were successfully completed.
The Jan. 10 flight departed Mojave Air and Space Port at 7:22 a.m. PST with the first stage consisting of the WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft lifting SS2 to an altitude of about 46,000 ft/14,021m. At the controls of WK2 were Virgin Galactic pilot Mike Masucci and Scaled test pilot Mike Alsbury. On release, SS2’s rocket motor was ignited, powering the spaceship to a planned altitude of 71,000 ft/21,641m. – SS2’s highest altitude to date – and a maximum speed of Mach 1.4. SS2’s unique feather re-entry system was also tested during the flight.
The spaceship’s RCS will allow its pilots to maneuver the vehicle in space, permiting an optimal viewing experience for those on board and aiding the positioning process for spacecraft re-entry. The new reflective protection coating on SS2’s inner tail boom surfaces is being evaluated to help maintain vehicle skin temperatures while the rocket motor is firing.
SS2’s propulsion system was developed by Sierra Nevada Corp. and is the world’s largest operational hybrid rocket motor. Although today’s flight saw it burn for a planned 20 seconds, the system has been successfully tested in ground firings to demonstrate performance characteristics and burn time sufficient to take the spaceship and its private astronauts to space.
This flight was the third opportunity to see a supersonic, rocket-powered test of the Virgin Galactic system after dozens of successful subsonic test flights. “Today’s flight was another resounding success,” says Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. “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.”
Click here for a video of the flight.