The skies above the Mojave Air and Space Port in California were busy today.
Virgin Galactic successfully completed the third rocket-powered supersonic flight of its passenger carrying reusable space vehicle, SpaceShipTwo (SS2).
On release from the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane, SS2’s rocket motor was ignited, powering the spaceship to a planned altitude of 71,000 ft.
That’s SS2’s highest altitude to date with the rocket plane reaching a maximum speed of Mach 1.4.
SS2’s unique feather re-entry system was also tested during today’s flight.
In command on the flight deck of 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.
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.
Test objectives met
According to a Virgin Galactic statement, all of the test objectives of the flight were successfully completed.
SS2’s hybrid rocket motor, developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation, burned for a planned 20 seconds.
“With each flight test, we are progressively closer to our target of starting commercial service in 2014,” said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides.
Billed as the world’s first commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic is owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s aabar Investments PJS.
Commenting on today’s successful test flight, Branson added: “I couldn’t be happier to start the New Year with all the pieces visibly in place for the start of full space flights. 2014 will be the year when we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space,” he said in a press statement.
By Leonard David