Virgin's SpaceShipTwo performs first feathered flight

Virgin's all-composite SpaceShipTwo, manufactured by Scaled Composites, tested its "featured" configuration, where the tail section of the craft is rotated upwards to a 65° angle to the fuselage.

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Virgin Galactic (Mojave, Calif., USA) on May 4 announced that SpaceShipTwo, the world's first commercial spaceship, successfullly demonstrated its reentry "feather" configuration for the first time.

This test flight, the third in less than two weeks, marks another major milestone on the path to powered test flights and commercial operations.

SpaceShipTwo (SS2), named VSS Enterprise, has now flown solo seven times since its public roll-out in December 2009 and since the completion of its ground and captive-carry test program.

This latest flight on May 4 saw a 6:43 am (local) runway take off for VSS Enterprise, attached to its WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft, VMS Eve. At the controls of the of the spaceship were Scaled Composites' test pilots Pete Siebold and Clint Nichols, while Mark Stucky, Brian Maisler and Brandon Inks crewed the purpose-built, all-composite, twin-fuselage WK2.

After a 45-minute climb to the desired altitude of 51,500 ft/15,697m, SS2 was released cleanly from VMS Eve and established a stable glide profile before deploying, for the first time, its re-entry or "feathered" configuration by rotating the tail section of the vehicle upwards to a 65° angle to the fuselage. It remained in this configuration with the vehicle's body at a level pitch for approximately 1 minute, 15 seconds while descending, almost vertically, at around 15,500 ft (4,724m) per minute, slowed by the powerful shuttlecock-like drag created by the raised tail section. At around 33,500 ft/10,211m, the pilots reconfigured the spaceship to its normal glide mode and executed a smooth runway touch down, approximately 11 minutes, 5 seconds after its release from VMS Eve.

All objectives for the flight were met and detailed flight data is now being analyzed by the engineers at Scaled Composites, designers and builders of Virgin Galactic's sub-orbital spacecraft.

George Whitesides, CEO and president of Virgin Galactic, said, "This morning's spectacular flight by VSS Enterprise was its third in 12 days, reinforcing the fast turnaround and frequent flight-rate potential of Virgin Galactic's new vehicles. We have also shown this morning that the unique feathering re-entry mechanism, probably the single most important safety innovation within the whole system, works perfectly. This is yet another important milestone successfully passed for Virgin Galactic, and brings us ever closer to the start of commercial operations. Credit is due to the whole Scaled team, whose meticulous planning and great skill are changing the course of history."

Pete Siebold, who along with Clint Nichols piloted the spaceship, added,
"In all test flight programs, after the training, planning and rehearsing, there comes the moment when you have to go up there and fly it for real. This morning's flight was a test pilot's dream. The spaceship is a joy to fly and the feathered descent portion added a new, unusual but wonderful dynamic to the ride. The fact that it all went to plan, that there were no surprises and that we brought VSS Enterprise back to Mojave safe and sound is a great testament to the whole team."