Historical implications aside, one of the most impressive and important aspects of Richard Branson’s upcoming private space line is its distinct mode of atmospheric re-entry.
Thanks to a breakthrough design by legendary aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is one of the first craft to utilize a technique known as “feathered flight” to acheive a safer, more stable method of passing through the various layers of Earth’s atmosphere. After rocketing to the lower reaches of the thermosphere, SpaceShipTwo is designed to rotate its wings by 65
°, so that the body of the craft creates a very large amount of drag while the wings remain upright to guide the ship and provide a type of fail-proof stability. The high drag combined with the low weight of the craft ensures that surface temperatures remain low, preventing any risk of burning up upon re-entry.
On May 4th, the Virgin Galactic & Scaled Composites team performed the first test flight in which the VSS Enterprise deployed the feathered configuration; proving that the design is stable and ready for testing at higher velocity. Today, Virgin Galactic released the official video of the test flight, which provides a stunning look at the feathering in action.
The VSS Enterprise has flown solo seven times since it’s public debut in December of 2009, and will likely begin powered test flights in the second half of 2011. Finally convinced it’ll be safe? Then head on over to the Virgin Galactic website and reserve your spot for only $20,000.