Virgin Galactic releases first “feathered flight” video

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.

Virgin Galactic sets sights on orbital spaceflight

Virgin Galactic going orbital

The stakes in the commercial space race just got a little loftier. Today, Virgin Galactic officially announced plans to team up with two U.S companies in pursuit of developing a commercial manned orbital spacecraft.

Backed by fearless entrepreneur Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic has chosen to support Sierra Nevada Space Systems (SNC) and Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDEV2); an initiative designed to stimulate the development of privately-operated space vehicles. This falls in line with the comments Branson made in our exclusive interview at Spaceport America, saying that NASA’s role should transition to apportioning out money to private space companies.

Since it’s conception in 2004, Virgin Galactic has primarily worked alongside Mojave-based company Scaled Composites to develop a reusable sub-orbital craft, dubbed “SpaceShipTwo”. This design will take passengers over 62 miles into space, but lacks the power required to completely escape the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in about 5 minutes of weightlessness. Orbital flights would give passengers a much longer weightless experience and views of the entire surface of the Earth.

SNC and OSC are following Scaled’s lead by researching designs that will utilize lifting-wing bodies and runway landings in an effort to minimize cost and maximize passenger safety.

While the first iteration of SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, has yet to make a rocket-powered manned test flight, Branson commented on the importance of looking ahead. “We are now very close to making the dream of sub-orbital space a reality for thousands of people at a cost and level of safety unimaginable even in the recent past…Today’s anouncement is an important step along the way of acheiving our ultimate and long term goal.”

We are indeed living in exciting times for private space exploration. Now go ahead and leave the inevitable “when can I afford it?” remarks in the comments section below!

Virgin Galactic VSS Enterprise makes its first “Captive Carry Flight”

It was just 4 months ago when the Gadling team visited the Mojave Desert space port to witness the unveiling of the VSS Enterprise – the actual Virgin Galactic plane that will be flying paying guests into space on the first commercial space flight service.

Yesterday was another huge milestone for the team – they took the VSS Enterprise for its first “captive carry flight”. This flight involved flying the mothership and the spaceship, without disconnecting. In future flight tests, they’ll fly both craft, and let the spaceship glide back to earth.

Tests will continue well into 2011, prior to the start of actual commercial space operations. The starting price for tickets is $200,000, with a minimum deposit of $20,000.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (Photos)

December 7th, 2009; there’s a good chance it won’t be remembered as a milestone in history. But it can certainly be marked as a major stepping stone in the human endeavor of space exploration.

At roughly 5.30pm on Monday evening, Richard Branson, Burt Rutan, Governor Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson proudly rolled out Virgin Galactic’s first test flight ready spacecraft. After the dramatic unveiling, the sub-orbital, eight passenger vehicle was promptly christened as the VSS Enterprise – a homage to a handful of historical vessels that have shared the same name.

The entire event was done in true Branson fashion – lights, music, and plenty of beautiful people. Over 800 press, crew and “future astronauts” were in attendance, despite high winds and occasional snow flurries at the remote Mojave Spaceport.

Full photo coverage after the break.

Governors Bill Richardson and Arnold Schwarzenegger were on site to emphasize their appreciation of Virgin Galactic’s venture; all future test flights will be performed in 2010 out of Mojave, California and the first official launches will take place at Spaceport America, in New Mexico. Governor Richardson has made a large investment in bringing this new industry to his state, and even called for President Obama to make a bigger investment in the future of space tourism.

The crowd in attendance was dominated by citizens that have already set down the full $200,000 deposit to secure their flights into space; a diverse group of enthusiasts that ranges from the wealthiest of entrepreneurs to humble schoolteachers.

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After the press conference, the crowd gathered on the chilly Mojave Spaceport runway to witness the rolling out of SpaceShipTwo, carried by Virgin MotherShip Eve. The event was cut short however, due to high wind advisories in the area that threatened the lavish, inflatable domes and tent structures set up by Virgin Galactic for the event.

Critics claim that since the VSS Enterprise will only be making sub-orbital flights, humans are still a long way off from lengthy space travel. The current power that the craft is capable of will need to be scaled up to nearly 60 times before full orbital potential is possible.

Nonetheless, Virgin promises that the first flights aboard the craft will be an experience unlike any other – with full 3-day training sessions for all passengers and over 6 minutes of complete weightlessness on the flights. The development also opens up the floodgates for future progression in rapid inter-continental travel and cost efficient methods of putting satellites or heavy equipment in space.

As spacecraft designer Burt Rutan has said, “We need affordable space travel to inspire our youth, to let them know that they can experience their dreams, can set significant goals and be in a position to lead all of us to future progress in exploration, discovery and fun.”

Virgin Galactic has undoubtedly launched us into that exciting period; but while the VSS Enterprise may not be mankind’s leap into full-orbital spaceflights, it’s certainly the necessary stepping stone for space tourism and proof that private groups have the capability and support to forever change our perception of travel.

For more information about booking flights into space, you can check out Virgin Galactic’s website, or Virtuoso’s select list of Accredited Space Agents.