Richard Branson and Friends Reach the Edge of Space, and Lived to Tell About it!

Early this morning, Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic achieved a major milestone in the development of commercial space travel. Along with a team of specialists, Branson traveled to the edge of space aboard the VSS Unity and made it safely back to Earth. In so doing, Branson and his company have also fired the latest salvo in the ongoing race between the titans of the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace).

Continue reading “Richard Branson and Friends Reach the Edge of Space, and Lived to Tell About it!”

Richard Branson will fly on SpaceShipTwo this weekend. Welcome to the New (Edge of) Space Race!

It’s no secret that the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace) has become immensely lucrative in recent years, nor the fact that it has become intensely competitive as a result. To illustrate, one needs to look no further than the top three NewSpace companies in the world right now: SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic. Between these three companies, all founded by billionaires with similar visions, a new space race has begun.

In recent months, the race has intensified as Jeff Bezos announced that he would be going to space on the inaugural flight of the New Shepard rocket. In response, Virgin Galactic founder and CEO Richard Branson announced earlier this week that he would fly aboard the VSS Unity as it makes its latest test flight. If successful, this mission – scheduled for Sunday, July 11th (weather permitting) – will see Branson become the first billionaire to go to space.

Continue reading “Richard Branson will fly on SpaceShipTwo this weekend. Welcome to the New (Edge of) Space Race!”

Virgin Galactic Reaches the Space Frontier Over New Mexico for the First Time

SpaceShipTwo over New Mexico

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane crossed its 50-mile-high space boundary over New Mexico for the first time today, after months of challenges.

The trip by VSS Unity marks the first time a spacecraft has been launched so high from a New Mexico spaceport. Unity passed the 50-mile mark twice during tests at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, in 2018 and 2019. Since then, the plane and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, dubbed VMS Eve, have been transferred to their operational home base at New Mexico’s Spaceport America.

“Today’s flight sees New Mexico become the third U.S. state to launch humans to space,” after Florida and California, Virgin Galactic said in a post-mission press release.

Continue reading “Virgin Galactic Reaches the Space Frontier Over New Mexico for the First Time”

Virgin Galactic Sends Three People to the Edge of Space. Flights with Paying Customers Around the Corner Now

Virgin Galactic Makes Space for Second Time in Ten Weeks with Three On Board. Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic has reached another milestone in their fight test program. The VSS Unity spacecraft carried a third crew member on board, in its fifth rocket-powered test flight. It was the second time that the spacecraft reached space.

Continue reading “Virgin Galactic Sends Three People to the Edge of Space. Flights with Paying Customers Around the Corner Now”

Virgin Galactic Performs the Second Test of VSS Unity, Reaching Mach 1.9

When it comes to the dream of commercial space exploration and space tourism, a few names really stand out. In addition to Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, you have Richard Branson – the founder and CEO of the Virgin Group. For years, Branson has sought to make space tourism a reality through Virgin Galactic, which would take passengers into suborbit using his SpaceShipTwo class of rocket planes.

Unfortunately, Virgin Galactic suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, at the same time that competitors like SpaceX and Blue Origin emerged as competitors. However, the VSS Unity (part of the Virgin Galactic fleet) recently conducted its second powered test flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port on Tuesday, May 29th. While this test is years behind schedule, it marks a significant step towards Branson’s realization of flying customers to space.

This was the second time that the VSS Unity flew since 2014, when the VSS Enterprise suffered a terrible crash while attempting to land, killing one pilot and injuring the other. The first propulsive test took place two months ago after several additional tests were performed on the craft. And with that last success, Virgin Galactic moved ahead with its second powered test earlier this week.

The focus of the latest test flight was to learn more about how the spaceship handles at supersonic speeds. It was also intended to test the control system’s performance when the vehicle was closer to its ultimate commercial configuration. As the company stated, “This involved shifting the vehicle’s center of gravity rearward via the addition of passenger seats and related equipment.”

This statement is a possible indication that the test program is reaching the final stretch before Virgin Galactic allows passengers on the vehicle. However, the company will need to conduct a full-duration flight (which will include a full-duration burn of its rocket motor) before that can happen. This latest test involved only a partial rocket burn, but nevertheless demonstrated the spacecraft’s capabilities at supersonic speed.

The company live-tweeted the entire event, which began at 8:34 AM with the VSS Unity and its carrier mothership (VMS Eve) taxing out to the runway for final checks. For this flight, the pilots were Dave Mackay and Mark “Forger” Stucky while CJ Sturckow and Nicola Pecile piloted of the carrier aircraft. At We have take-off. VMS Eve & VSS Unity have taken to the skies and have begun their climb.”

By 9:43 AM, the company announced that the VSS Unity had detached from the VMS Eve and was “flying free”. What followed was a series of live-tweets that indicated the ignition of the VSS Unity’s rocket motor, the shutting down of the motor, and the raising of the tail fins to the “feathered” re-entry position. By 9:55 AM, the company announced a smooth landing for the VSS Unity, signaling the end of the test.

Branson, who was at the Mojave Air and Space Port for the test, released the following statement shortly thereafter:

“It was great to see our beautiful spaceship back in the air and to share the moment with the talented team who are taking us, step by step, to space. Seeing Unity soar upwards at supersonic speeds is inspiring and absolutely breathtaking. We are getting ever closer to realizing our goals. Congratulations to the whole team!”

Branson was also at the center to take in a tour of the facilities of The Spaceship Company (TSC), a sister company of Virgin Galactic that is responsible for developing Virgin Galactic’s future fleet. While there, Branson viewed the next two spaceships that TSC is currently manufacturing, as well as the production facilities for TSC’s spaceship rocket motors.

With the latest test flight complete, the company’s teams will be reviewing the data from this flight and making preparations for the next flight. No indication has been given as to when that will be, or if this test flight will include a full-duration burn of the motor. However, Branson was very happy with the test results, stating:

“Today we saw VSS Unity in her natural environment, flying fast under rocket power and with a nose pointing firmly towards the black sky of space. The pathway that Unity is forging is one that many thousands of us will take over time, and will help share a perspective that is crucial to solving some of humanity’s toughest challenges on planet Earth.”

Artists’ impression of Moon Base Alpha, SpaceX’s envisioned lunar outpost supplied with the BFR. Credit: SpaceX

Meanwhile, Bezos continues to pursue his plans for sending passengers into orbit using his fleet of New Shepard rockets. And of course, Musk continues to pursue the idea of sending tourists to the Moon and Mars using his Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). And with many other private aerospace ventures looking to provide trips into orbit or to the surface of the Moon, there is sure to be no shortage of options for going into space in the near future!

And be sure to check out this video of the VSS Unity’s second test flight, courtesy of Virgin Galactic:

Further Reading: NASA Space Flight

Stephen Hawking Is Going To The Edge Of Space

Stephen Hawking has spent decades theorizing about the Universe. His thinking on black holes, quantum gravity, quantum mechanics, and a long list of other topics, has helped shape our understanding of the cosmos. Now it looks like the man who has spent most of his adult life bound to a wheel-chair will travel to the edge of space.

In an interview with Good Morning Britain, Hawking said “Richard Branson has offered me a seat on Virgin Galactic, and I said yes immediately.” Hawking added that his “three children have brought me great joy—and I can tell you what will make me happy, to travel in space.”

Stephen Hawking is one of the premier physicists and theorists of our time. Here he is being presented by his daughter Lucy Hawking at the lecture he gave for NASA’s 50th anniversary. Credit: NASA/Paul Alers

It’s all thanks to Richard Branson and his VSS Unity spaceship, which is still under development by The Spaceship Company. The Unity is designed to launch not from a rocket pad, but from underneath a carrier aircraft. By eliminating enormously expensive rocket launches from the whole endeavour, Branson hopes to make space more accessible to more people.

Virgin Spaceship Unity (VSS Unity) glides for the first time after being released from Virgin Mothership Eve (VMS Eve) over the Mojave Desert on 3rd, December 2016. Image: Virgin Galactic

The Virgin Galactic spacecraft is carried to an altitude of about 50,000 feet, then released from its carrier aircraft. Its rocket fires for about 1 minute, which accelerates the craft to three-and-a-half times the speed of sound, then is shut off. Then, according to Virgin Galactic, passengers will experience a “dramatic transition to silence and to true weightlessness.”

As the video shows, the spacecraft is still in glide testing phase, where it is carried to altitude, then released. There is no rocket burn, and the craft glides down and lands at its base.

This spaceflight won’t be Hawking’s first experience with weightlessness, however. To celebrate his 65th birthday, Hawking travelled on board Zero Gravity Corp’s modified Boeing 727 in 2007. At the time, that zero-g flight was in preparation for a trip into sub-orbital space with Virgin Galactic in 2009. But the development of Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft has suffered setbacks, and the 2009 date was not attainable.

Hawking has experienced zero gravity before, when he flew on Zero Gravity Corp’s modified Boeing 727 in 2007. Image: By Jim Campbell/Aero-News Network – http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/475109138/ / http://mediaarchive.ksc.nasa.gov/detail.cfm?mediaid=31873, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3655144

Virgin Galactic’s stated aim is to “democratize space,” albeit at a cost of US $250,000 per person. But somehow I doubt that Hawking will be paying. If anyone has earned a free trip into space, it is Dr. Stephen Hawking.

Universe Today’s Top 10 Space Stories of 2014

It seems a lot of the space stories of this year involve spacecraft making journeys: bouncing across a comet, or making their way to Mars. Private companies also figure prominently, both in terms of successes and prominent failures.

These are Universe Today’s picks for the top space stories of the year. Disagree? Think we forgot something? Let us know in the comments.

10. End of Venus Express

Artist's impression of Venus Express performing aerobreaking maneuvers in the planet's atmosphere in June and July 2014. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau
Artist’s impression of Venus Express performing aerobreaking maneuvers in the planet’s atmosphere in June and July 2014. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau

This month saw the end of Venus Express’ eight-year mission at the planet, which happened after the spacecraft made a daring plunge into part of the atmosphere to learn more about its properties. The spacecraft survived the aerobraking maneuvers, but ran out of fuel after a few engine burns to raise it higher. Soon it will plunge into the atmosphere for good. But it was a productive mission overall, with discoveries ranging from a slowing rotation to mysterious “glories”.

9. Continued discoveries by Curiosity and Opportunity

1 Martian Year on Mars!  Curiosity treks to Mount Sharp in this photo mosaic view captured on Sol 669, June 24, 2014.    Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
1 Martian Year on Mars! Curiosity treks to Mount Sharp in this photo mosaic view captured on Sol 669, June 24, 2014. Navcam camera raw images stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Methane? Organics? Water? Mars appears to have had these substances in abundance over its history. Continued work from the Curiosity rover — passing its second Earth year on Mars — found methane fluctuating in Gale Crater, and the first confirmed discovery of organics on the Martian surface. Opportunity is almost 11 years into its mission and battling memory problems, but the rover is still on the move (passing 41 kilometers) to an area that could be full of clay.

8. Siding Spring at Mars and the level of study of the comet by other missions at Mars

Comet Siding Spring near Mars in a composite image by the Hubble Space Telescope, capturing their positions between Oct. 18 8:06 a.m. EDT (12:06 p.m. UTC) and Oct. 19 11:17 p.m. EDT (Oct. 20, 3:17 a.m. UTC). Credit: NASA, ESA, PSI, JHU/APL, STScI/AURA
Comet Siding Spring near Mars in a composite image by the Hubble Space Telescope, capturing their positions between Oct. 18 8:06 a.m. EDT (12:06 p.m. UTC) and Oct. 19 11:17 p.m. EDT (Oct. 20, 3:17 a.m. UTC). Credit: NASA, ESA, PSI, JHU/APL, STScI/AURA

We had a rare opportunity to watch a comet make a grazing pass by Mars, not close enough to pose significant danger to spacecraft, but definitely close enough to affect its atmosphere! Siding Spring caught everyone’s attention throughout the year, and did not disappoint. The numerous spacecraft at the Red Planet caught glimpses, including from the surface and from orbit. It likely created a meteor shower and could alter the Martian atmosphere forever.

7. Kepler K2

Illustration of the Kepler spacecraft (NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel)
Illustration of the Kepler spacecraft (NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel)

The Kepler space telescope lost the second of its four pointing devices last year, requiring a major rethink for the veteran planet hunter. The solution was a new mission called K2 that uses the pressure of the Sun to maintain the spacecraft’s direction, although it has to flip every 83 days or so to a new location to avoid the star’s glare. It’s not as precise as before, but with the mission approved we now know for sure K2 can locate exoplanets. The first confirmed one is a super-Earth.

6. MAVEN at Mars

An artist's conception of MAVEN orbiting Mars. Image Credit: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center
An artist’s conception of MAVEN orbiting Mars. Image Credit: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center

Where did the Martian atmosphere go? Why was it so thick in the past, allowing water to flow on the surface, and so thin right now? The prevailing theory is that the Sun’s pressure on the Martian atmosphere pushed lighter isotopes (such as that of hydrogen) away from the planet, leaving heavier isotopes behind. NASA is now investigating this in more detail with MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), which arrived at the planet this fall.

5. India’s MOM

Artist's impression of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Credit ISRO
Artist’s impression of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Credit ISRO

India made history this year as only the third entity to successfully reach the Red Planet (after the United States and Europe). While updates from the Mars Orbiter Mission have been slow in recent weeks, we know for sure that it observed Siding Spring at Mars and it has been diligently taking pictures of the Red Planet, such as this one of the Solar System’s largest volcano and a huge canyon on Mars.

4. Accidents by Virgin and Orbital

NTSB investigators are seen making their initial inspection of debris from the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo. The debris field stresses over a fiver mile range in the Mojave desert. (Credit: Getty Images)
NTSB investigators are seen making their initial inspection of debris from the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo. The debris field stresses over a fiver mile range in the Mojave desert. (Credit: Getty Images)

In one sobering week in October, the dangers of space travel were again made clear after incidents affected Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences. Virgin lost a pilot and seriously injured another when something went seriously awry during a flight test. Investigators have so far determined that the re-entry system turned on prematurely, but more details are being determined. Orbital meanwhile suffered the catastrophic loss of one of its Antares rockets, perhaps due to Soviet-era-designed engines, but the company is looking at other ways to fulfill its NASA contractual obligations to send cargo to the International Space Station.

3. SpaceX rocket landing attempts

The Falcon 9 rocket with landing legs in SpaceX’s hangar at Cape Canaveral, Fl, preparing to launch Dragon to the space station this Sunday March 30.  Credit: SpaceX
The Falcon 9 rocket with landing legs in SpaceX’s hangar at Cape Canaveral, Fl, preparing to launch Dragon to the space station this Sunday March 30. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is attempting a daunting technological feat, which is bringing back its rocket first stages for re-use. The company is hoping that this will cut down on the costs of launch in the long term, but this technological innovation will take some time. The Falcon 9 rocket stage that made it back to the ocean in July was deemed a success, although the force of the landing broke it apart. Next, SpaceX is trying to place its rocket on an ocean platform.

2. Orion flight

Orion Service Module fairing separation. Credit: NASA TV
Orion Service Module fairing separation. Credit: NASA TV

NASA’s spacecraft for deep space exploration (Orion) successfully finished its first major uncrewed test this month, when it rode into orbit, made a high-speed re-entry and successfully splashed down in the ocean. But it’s going to be a while before Orion flies again, likely in 2017 or even 2018. NASA hopes to put a crew on this spacecraft type in the 2020s, potentially for trips to the Moon, an asteroid or (more distantly) Mars.

1. Rosetta

New Rosetta mission findings do not exclude comets as a source of water in and on the Earth's crust but does indicate comets were a minor contribution. A four-image mosaic comprises images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 7 December from a distance of 19.7 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam Imager)
New Rosetta mission findings do not exclude comets as a source of water in and on the Earth’s crust but does indicate comets were a minor contribution. A four-image mosaic comprises images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 7 December from a distance of 19.7 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam Imager)

It’s been an exciting year for the Rosetta mission. First it woke up from a lengthy hibernation, then it discovered that Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko looks a bit like a rubber duckie, and then it got up close and released the Philae lander. The soft touchdown did not go as planned, to say the least, as the spacecraft bounced for two hours and then came to rest in a spot without a lot of sunlight. While Philae hibernates and controllers hope it wakes up again in a few months, however, science results are already showing intriguing things. For example, water delivered to Earth likely came mostly from other sources than comets.

Virgin Galactic Crash Survivor Didn’t Know Re-Entry System Was Turned On Prematurely

The surviving co-pilot of the Virgin Galactic crash was unaware that SpaceShipTwo’s re-entry system was unlocked prematurely during the flight test, according to an update from the National Transportation Safety Board.

In an interview with investigators, the board said Peter Siebold provided testimony that was consistent with other information gathered so far since the crash. The incident, which killed fellow co-pilot Mike Alsbury when the craft plunged into the Mojave desert, took place Oct. 31.

“The NTSB operations and human performance investigators interviewed the surviving pilot on Friday. According to the pilot, he was unaware that the feather system had been unlocked early by the copilot,” read an update on the board’s website.

“His description of the vehicle motion was consistent with other data sources in the investigation. He stated that he was extracted from the vehicle as a result of the break-up sequence and unbuckled from his seat at some point before the parachute deployed automatically.”

Inset: Pilot Peter Siebold of Scaled Composites. Photo of SpaceShipTwo, SS Enterprise, in flight with its tail section in the feathered position for atmospheric re-entry. (Photo Credits: Scaled Composites)
Inset: Pilot Peter Siebold of Scaled Composites. Photo of SpaceShipTwo, SS Enterprise, in flight with its tail section in the feathered position for atmospheric re-entry. (Photo Credits: Scaled Composites)

Accidents are due to a complex set of circumstances, which means the NTSB finding that the re-entry system was deployed prematurely is only a preliminary finding. The investigation into the full circumstances surrounding the crash could take anywhere from months to a year, according to multiple media reports.

Virgin was performing another in a series of high-altitude test flights in preparation for running tourists up to suborbital space early next year. A handful of ticket-holders, who made deposits of up to $250,000 each, have reportedly asked for their money back. The Richard Branson-founded company has not revealed when the first commercial flight is expected to take place.

Meanwhile, Virgin does have another version of SpaceShipTwo already under assembly right now, which is considered 95% structurally complete and 60% assembled, according to NBC News. The prototype could take to the skies before the NTSB investigation is complete, the report added.

Update: NTSB Confirms SpaceShipTwo feathering was Prematurely Unlocked

In a Monday afternoon press conference, acting NTSB chairman Christopher Hart confirmed that the safety lock on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo feathering mechanism was prematurely unlocked moments before breakup. Hart also quickly stated that this would be the last on-site press conference. The NTSB is nearing the completion of data gathering and the team will be returning to Washington DC with the data to undertake the facts compilation followed by the analysis.

Hart reiterated that the test flight was rich in telemetry. He said that the supply of data could expedite the analysis but he cautioned that they still expect the investigation to take 12 months to conclude and release a final report. He also added that as analysis proceeds, the NTSB would provide updates and he encouraged interested parties including the public at-large to undertake analysis of the available data; however, he emphasized that the conclusions drawn would be based on NTSB analysis alone.

From the data released and statements by Hart during the press conference, it is now clear that the NTSB recognizes that the feathering was not to be deployed until SpaceShipTwo achieved mach 1.4. The statement that acting chairman Hart made appeared to be explicitly referencing the Flight Card – the plan of actions and constraints for the flight. If this was the specific wording on the Flight Card, then it would have permitted a pilot to interpret it in various ways.

Sunday, it was reported that SpaceShipTwo was flying at about Mach 1.2 when break up occurred. As a private pilot familiar with the impact that flight conditions have on operations of an aircraft, I would add that the SpaceShipTwo constraint of mach 1.4 for executing feathering is likely intended to be viewed by the pilots-in-control as the descent speed after SpaceShipTwo had achieved maximum altitude during a flight to the edge of the atmosphere. During descent, mach 1.4 would be achieved at a much higher altitude where the air density is much lower and stresses from the feathering would also be much lower; SpaceShipTwo is designed to feather with those environmental conditions. During previous tests of SpaceShipTwo when feathering was tested at low altitude, the vehicle was flying far below mach 1, i.e., subsonic. The vehicle in that flight regime had no difficulty withstanding stresses during the test of feathering. It should be emphasized that the strict rules under which the NTSB proceeds with an investigation do not allow the investigators to inject assumptions based on their past experience.

A timeline of events leading up to catastrophic breakup of SpaceShipTwo was stated by the NTSB acting chairman:

10:07:19: SpaceShipTwo is released from the carrier craft, WhiteKnightTwo
10:07:21  SpaceShipTwo’s engine starts
10:07:29  SpaceShipTwo reaches mach 0.94
10:07:31: SpaceShipTwo exceeds the speed of sound – mach 1.02. Between 10:07:29 and 10:07:31, the feathering safety was unlocked.

10:0 7:34: All telemetry was lost

The NTSB has also created a new team responsible for evaluating the Human-Machine Interface (HMI) on SpaceShipTwo. HMI is a discipline that has gained increased interest within several manufacturing sectors, particularly in aircraft cockpit design. The performance of modern aircraft, places greater demand on human performance. The formulation of a Human performance team evaluating the HMI of SpaceShipTwo indicates that the NTSB wants to assess the quality of the cockpit control panels and whether the configuration of switches contributed to pilot error.

While most of the debris is confined to a 5 mile swath of desert, Hart stated that debris has now been found as far as 30 to 35 miles from the immediate debris field.

Besides the apparent focus by the NTSB on the unplanned feathering, Hart stated that they are checking the subsystems of the spacecraft for integrity – pneumatics, flight control, electrical, and so on.

Hart concluded the press conference by taking questions from reporters.

Q. Had the pilot been interviewed?
A. Not yet and not until he is fit to be interviewed.

Q. Was the Flight Card reviewed?
A. The NTSB has reviewed the flight card for procedures and constraints.
According to Hart, the card stated not to release the safety lock of the feathering mechanism until mach 1.4. The Flight Card describes the steps that a flight crew is to take to complete a successful mission.
Q/A. Hart confirmed that 2 pilot actions were necessary for feathering. 1) Unlock the safety, and 2) engage feathering lever. U.T. – Hart could not say if both pilots were necessary, that is, shared the two step process.
Q/A. A reporter contentiously asked Hart who was in the right seat. Hart stated that he did not know and also was unwilling to assume that it was the co-pilot, Alsbury. The reporter probing him further asked about his statements from Sunday. Hart agreed that he was mistaken to have assumed on Sunday that it was the copilot.

Finally, a review of the NTSB press conference video, placed on YouTube, presented a clarification as text on video. It stated that the co-pilot was residing in the right seat and was responsible for unlocking the feathering. At this preliminary stage of the investigation, it would appear that Alsbury’s death in the accident was due to his premature unlocking of the feathering mechanism. Hart did not state this but the circumstantial evidence so far is pointing in that direction.

Reference:

NTSB Press Conference Video, November 3, 2014

NTSB Discovers Possible Pilot Error in SpaceShipTwo Investigation

In a press conference at the Mojave Air and Sport Port Sunday evening, acting NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart revealed preliminary findings in the investigation of the  Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo test flight accident. According to Hart, review of cockpit video during the flight showed that the co-pilot Michael Alsbury turned the tail feathering lock-unlock lever to the unlocked position too early. But Hart was quick to add that the NTSB has not concluded that this represents a cause and effect, and more analysis is necessary.

“I am not stating this was the cause of this mishap,” he said. “We have months and months of investigation to determine what the cause was.”

Feathering of the tail is an action taken during re-entry at high altitude in order to increase drag and accelerate the space vehicle’s descent. The apparently unscripted action by Alsbury was taken just seconds into the flight of SpaceShipTwo when the suborbital space vehicle had reached the speed of sound, Mach 1 in the denser atmosphere at roughly 50,000 feet. However, unlocking the feathering mechanism was not followed by the second step – moving of another lever which actually rotates the twin tail sections relative to the fuselage to increase the drag for the feathering, which is like a shuttlecock effect. Two seconds after Alsbury’s action and the feathering, SpaceShipTwo experienced a catastrophic breakup.

SpaceShipTwo is shown in the feathered configuration in an earlier unpowered test flight. While the test pilots tested the feathering in the lower, denser atmosphere, the vehicles was much slower and stresses on the vehicle remained well within safety margins. (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo is shown in the feathered configuration in an earlier unpowered test flight. While the test pilots tested the feathering in the lower, denser atmosphere, the vehicles was flying much slower and stresses on the vehicle remained within safety margins. (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Feathering of the twin tail section of SpaceShiptTwo requires the pilots to execute two steps. The co-pilot Alsbury executed the first step — unlocking. According to the NTSB investigators, the unlocking of the mechanism should not have been enough to cause the feathering during the ill-fated test flight. The lock-unlock mechanism represents a safety feature. The feathering should only occur after the pilot moves a second lever which is not unlike the lever in a conventional aircraft that lowers the landing flaps to increase lift, but as with feathering, at the expense of adding more drag.

Clearly this discovery by the NTSB is turning their focus away from the rocket engine which has posed so much difficulty for Scaled Composites project life cycle of SpaceShipTwo. The propulsion system has been primarily to blame for the delays which Virgin Group founder, Richard Branson has stated stands at five years; the project development now at the 10 year mark.

Discussions in the blogosphere involving aeronautic and propulsion experts and average citizens had quickly turned to criticism of the SpaceShipTwo rocket motor. However, review of the debris appeared to show the rocket motor intact. With this NTSB finding, there is likely to be a pause and change in the focus. However, if the NTSB investigation concludes that the feathering is the cause of the accident, this may not discharge the many concerns about safety of the SpaceShipTwo propulsion system design.

Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson responded harshly to the criticism of the propulsion system. “I’ve never seen such irresponsible innuendo and damaging innuendo,” he told Sky News television in the UK. “The fuel tanks and the engine were intact, showing there was no explosion, despite a lot of self-proclaimed experts saying that was the cause,” he said.

The SpaceShipTwo test flight accident occurred at 10:12 AM PDT on October 31st. One day later, NTSB agents had arrived in the Mojave desert to begin the investigation. During the first press conference, Hart stated that while the investigation is expected to last most of a year, he emphasized that the telemetry recorded during the flight was comprehensive and would be instrumental to uncovering a cause and effect.

The telemetry included several video recordings from the carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, from ground video cameras, and also from inside the cockpit. It is a review of the latter that showed the releasing of the feathering safety lock mechanism by Alsbury. Co-pilot Alsbury died as a result of vehicle’s breakup while the pilot, Peter Siebold, escaped or was thrown from the vehicle and parachuted to the ground. Siebold is in serious condition but conscious and speaking to family and attending physicians.

Another point of comparison between the feathering of the SpaceShipTwo tail section with conventional aircraft flaps is that flaps are given a maximum speed at which they can be safely deployed. Deployment at beyond the maximum speed risks severe mechanical stress to the airframe. The feathering that occurred during the test flight at Mach 1 and at the low altitude of the early phase of powered flight by SpaceShipTwo would also have caused sudden and severe stress and potentially the breakup of the vehicle.

NTSB’s Christopher Hart stated that a follow-up press conference would be held on Monday, November 3rd, and will provide more details regarding the NTSB discovery. Hart, during the Sunday press conference, reiterated that despite this early discovery, the investigation is still expected to take a year to conclude. Universe Today will follow with an update after the completion of the Monday press conference.