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.
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!
We all know about the various parallel efforts pushing forth into space tourism — Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX, to name a few, are developing multi-million dollar platforms to one day take the average civilian out into space. But we also know about the cost involved. Virgin Galactic has already taken hundreds of deposits at $200,000 each, a price that most people would find prohibitive, so while many space enthusiasts dream of the voyage, it simply can’t happen.
In Burt Rutan’s vision, however, it one day can. The famous engineer and entrepreneur now working for Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic forecasts an explosion in space travel in the next twelve years, with 100,000 successful flights and an ultimate price of $475 for a trip into space. That’s as much as a flight across the Atlantic.
Take a look at his discussion from Big Think below:
Virgin Galactic unveiled the White Knight Two, their delivery vehicle for SpaceShipTwo at their Mojave construction facility today, to glorious fanfare and celebration.
White Knight Two is the second version of the mothership that will deliver the suborbital commercial space vehicle, SpaceShipTwo up to 40,000 feet before the daughtership cruises up into low orbit.
Virgin’s rollout of the ship is the first step in testing the new second phase of their commercial space flight system — a variety of static and flight tests still need to be done before the second duo are ready for real test flights. Indeed, SpaceShipTwo is still under construction and was hidden under a black sheet during the ceremonies today.
Check out the exclusive gallery of Gadling’s visit to the White Knight Two including visits from Sir Richard Branson, Buzz Aldrin and Richard Branson and stay tuned for a Gadling report on the entire event later this week!