The mothership for Virgin Galactic’s commercial space flights recently completed its third successful test flight, going faster and farther than any previous flights. The WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) flew for over two and half hours, at a maximum speed of 140 knots and an altitude of over 18,000 ft. “This is a truly remarkable aviation vehicle,” said test pilot Peter Siebold, “and, although it might look unique from the ground it is not strange to fly in any way and is in fact a great piloting experience. Now the stratosphere is the limit as we will continually test Eve (WK2) for the next few months up to her ceiling of above 50,000 ft.”
A video of WK2 and the flight is available below.
The flight also saw a 7 other tests successfully completed including in flight engine restarts, engine thrust asymmetry assessment and continued expansion of WK2’s operating envelope and evaluation of WK2’s handling qualities.
In addition to launching SS2, the WK2 also has a range of science payload and training applications including the potential to launch an unmanned rocket capable of putting a satellite into low Earth orbit.
“This is a fabulous airplane, it really is,” said Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composits, who built WK2. “It showed its potential today. We’ve got a couple of minor things to work on, but in general its going to do its job very well.”
“It really has performed flawlessly,” said Wil Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic. “You’d expect far more glitches in any normal experimental program. It looks like the guys at Scaled have got it right the first time.”
WK2 is the world’s largest all carbon composite aircraft and many of its component parts have been built using composite materials for the very first time. At 140 ft, the wing spar is the longest single carbon composite aviation structural component ever manufactured.
An all carbon composite vehicle allows for better fuel efficiency. The twin fuselage and central payload area configuration allow for easy access to WK2 and to the spaceship for passengers and crew; the design also aids operational efficiencies and turnaround times. WK2 will be able to support up to four daily space flights, is able to carry out both day and night time operations.