Wednesday, May 04, 2011

SpaceShipTwo Rentry Test "A Joy" For Test Pilots

Sir Richard Branson and Scaled Composites took a big step toward suborbital space tourism today, flying SpaceShipTwo on a test that demonstrated a unique atmospheric reentry scheme that obviates the need for heat shields or the type of thermal tiles that line the underside of NASA shuttle orbiters.

Hauled to an altitude of 51,500 feet during a 45-minute climb, the spaceship was released from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft and began a stable glide back toward its home port -- Mojave Air and Space Port in the California crossroads town of Mojave.

Pilots Pete Siebold and Clint Nichols of Scaled Composites, the craft's manufacturer, swung the tail section of the spaceship upwards to a 65 degree angle to the fuselage -- a "feathered" configuration that allows vehicle to slow like a high-drag badminton shuttlecock.

Also known as the VSS Enterprise, SpaceShipTwo descended for about one minute and 15 seconds at a rate of 15,500 feet per minute before the pilots rotated the vehicle's raised tail back into a position parallel to its fuselage. Eleven minutes and five seconds after its release, the Virgin Galactic suborbital spacecraft made a smooth runway touchdown.

"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," Siebold said in a statement released by Virgin Galactic.

He called the flight "a test pilot's dream" and said, "the spaceship is a joy to fly and the feathered descent portion added a new, unusual-but-wonderful dynamic to the ride."

The brainstorm of legendary aircraft and spacecraft designer Burt Rutan, the feathering of the ship's tail section is considered one of the most technically challenging and dangerous parts of the SpaceShipTwo flight. The test-flight showed the reentry scheme is safe and effective.

Virgin Galactic is taking bookings for suborbital spaceflights aboard the SpaceShipTwo craft. Cost of a flight is $200,000 and a deposit of $20,000 is required at the time of booking.

The all-composite, lightweight spacecraft was rolled out in December of 2009 and has been undergoing a series of test flights. Company officials have said suborbital flights with paying passengers could begin by the middle of this year.

ABOUT THE IMAGE: The image of SpaceFlightTwo in the skies over Mojave Air and Spaceport today was captured by Clay Center Observatory.

No comments: