Update: One Survivor, One Fatality in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Flight Accident

One of two tail sections (empennage) of SpaceShiipTwo lies on the Mojave desert moments after its breakup during test flight. (Credit: Mojave Rescue & Emergency Response Team)

Officials from Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites have confirmed one of the pilots was killed and another was injured in a major anomaly during a test flight of SpaceShipTwo today (Friday, October 31). The names of the pilots have not yet been released. During a hastily-called press conference, officials said launch of the WhiteKnightTwo plane carrying SpaceShipTwo occurred at 9:20 am PDT this morning and at 10:10 am, SpaceShipTwo (SS2) was released for its test flight to the edge of the atmosphere and space. Two minutes into its flight, SpaceShipTwo encountered an anomaly. Officials had no immediate cause but the rocket motor is the first point of concern.

During the press conference, it was stated that the rocket motor called RocketMotorTwo (RM2) had itself been flown in four previous flights but this was the first flight of version 2 now using a nylon-type plastic called thermoplastic polyamide, replacing the rubber-based fuel used by SpaceShipOne; ultimately too problematic for the SS2 design. Participating in the press conference were executives Kevin Mickey, CEO of Scaled Composites, George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and Stu Witt, chief executive of Mojave Air and Space Port. They emphasized that the nylon-based rocket fuel and engine had been thoroughly tested on the ground and they were confident of its readiness for in-flight testing.

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo in flight during test prior to release of the experimental space vehicle. (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)
WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo in flight during test prior to release of the experimental space vehicle. (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Within seconds of release, SpaceShipTwo’s engine ignited for flight. Two minutes into the powered flight would have permitted considerable time for SpaceShipTwo to gain altitude and speed. The pilots were not wearing pressure suits, only masks providing supplemental oxygen. At 50,000 feet and more, conditions are equivalent to space, and fluids in the human body begin to boil – turn from liquid to gas. The velocity of the surrounding jetstream upon breakup or ejection would have caused loss of their masks and any oxygen possibly carried with them.

Scaled Composites did not state during the press conference at what altitude the accident occurred. Based on the time of the accident – 2 minutes into powered flight – the vehicle could have been anywhere from 40,000 feet (12 km) to as high as 200,000 feet (60 km). It is more likely that, for this first flight of the nylon-based propellant, the trajectory was left shallow or the full potential of the motor not tested.

SpaceShipTwo does not have ejection seats but is equipped with an escape hatch. The fuselage is fully pressurized for the pilots and planned paying customers. It is not yet determined if the test pilots escaped from the hatch or were thrown from the vehicle after its mid-air breakup.

It is standard practice for any test pilot in an experimental vehicle to be wearing a parachute. SpaceShipTwo would be no exception. Furthermore, being aware of the flight conditions and escaping from a vehicle at high altitude, the chutes very likely had automatic mechanisms to deploy, assuming unconsciousness.

The press conference did not provide further details. At noon time PST, it did not seem evident that the rescue teams knew the conditions of the crew. Rescue teams at the Mojave airport supporting Scaled Composites were prepared and were quickly dispatched. The debris field was located but some more time was required to find both test pilots.

“We do know one of the crew members was met by emergency responders, treated on the scene, and transported to Antelope Valley Hospital,” said Witt at the press conference. “We also know that we have one fatality.”

During the press conference, Scaled Composite and Virgin Galactic executives emphasized their grief and concern for the surviving pilot, the families and friends. The Mojave desert-based companies are a tight knit group and a loss is certainly extremely personal to every team member. The executives did also emphasize once again that “space is hard.” This was first stated by President Kennedy during his famous speech at Rice University. Those words were echoed earlier this week when Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded seconds into flight and the leaders of lost payloads were also quick to state the same. The Scaled Composites expressed during the press conference that they remain determined and committed and now in honor of a fallen test pilot and another fighting for his life.

A SpaceShipTwo solid rocket motor is tested on a stand in the Mojave desert. Recent delays led Scaled Composites to swtich from a rubber-based fuel to one chemically similar to nylon. (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)
A SpaceShipTwo solid rocket motor is tested on a stand in the Mojave desert. Recent delays led Scaled Composites to swtich from a rubber-based fuel to one chemically similar to nylon. (Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Now a accident investigation begins. The FAA and NSTB will be involved. The investigation of this type of accident will takes months. For Scaled Composites who is effectively responsible and the owner of the flight systems will be analyzing their telemetry and are now forced to consider if the new rocket fuel is worthy of flight or whether they will turn to another solid fuel for SpaceShiptTwo. Sir Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin Group including Galactic has stated that they are five years behind schedule and most of this is attributed to engine development troubles. Company executives stated during the press conference that Branson is expected in Mojave within 24 hours.

Correction: November 1, 2014

In the original article of October 31, 2014, released immediately after the first press conference in the aftermath of the fatal test flight accident, it was stated that the rocket engine in the test flight was using thermoset plastic similar to nylon. The article is now corrected. The rocket fuel of version 2 of RocketMotorTwo is a thermoplastic polyamide which is similar to nylon.

BREAKING: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Suffers ‘In-flight Anomaly,’ Crashes in Test Flight

Feathered Flight during Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's third powered flight on January 10, 2014 over the Mojave desert. This image was taken by MARS Scientific as part of the Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System optical tracking system.

According to reports on Twitter, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo exploded in midflight, and debris was seen scattered on ground in the Mojave Desert in California. Virgin tweeted that the rocket plane suffered an “in-flight anomaly” during a powered test flight on Friday. Other witnesses said it involved a fatal explosion and crashed.

“The ship broke apart and started coming down in pieces over the desert,” tweeted Doug Messier (@spacecom), managing editor of the Parabolic Arc website.

The Associated Press is now reporting that the California Highway Patrol reports 1 fatality, 1 major injury after the SpaceShipTwo accident.

Virgin Galactic provided this statement via Twitter:

Virgin Galactic’s partner Scaled Composites conducted a powered test flight of #SpaceShipTwo earlier today. During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of SpaceShipTwo. WK2 (WhiteKnightTwo) landed safely. Our first concern is the status of the pilots, which is unknown at this time. We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates ASAP.

Virgin Galactic initially sent the news via this tweet:

News helicopters are now on site, providing views of the crash site, such as the one in this tweet:

The ABC News affiliate in California reported the rescue crew was seen “carrying person on stretcher to chopper.”

Doug Messier, who was onsite at Mojave for the test flight, also said via Twitter that he saw one of the crash sites and a “body still in seat.” Also that “Debris from the ship was scattered all over the road.”

SpaceShipTwo holds two pilots; they are each equipped with parachutes, but not ejection seats. Reports indicated at least one deployed parachute was sighted.

Other witnesses reported that SpaceShipTwo exploded after ignition of the engines. According to Spaceflightnow.com, SpaceShipTwo was making its first powered flight since January and was testing a redesigned nylon-based solid rocket motor. This was the 55th flight of SpaceShipTwo and its 35th free flight.

You can read a detailed look at this new engine, how and why it was developed, etc. in an article posted just yesterday by Doug Messier on Parabolic Arc.

Update: The FAA has now issued this statement:

Just after 10 a.m. PDT today, ground controllers at the Mojave Spaceport lost contact with SpaceShipTwo, an experimental space flight vehicle. The incident occurred over the Mojave Desert shortly after the space flight vehicle separated from WhiteKnightTwo, the vehicle that carried it aloft. Two crew members were on board SpaceShipTwo at the time of the incident. WhiteKnightTwo remained airborne after the incident. The FAA is investigating.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) tweeted that they are going “to send Go-Team to investigate Virgin Galactic test flight crash in Mojave, Calif.”

Update: According to the Kern County Sheriff’s spokesman, the co-pilot was killed, but pilot ejected and suffered moderate to major injuries in Virgin Galactic crash. Virgin Galactic did not provide information prior to the flight of who would be on board today’s test flight.

We’ll provide more updates as they become available.

Touchdown! Virgin Spacecraft Prototype Soars Over Mojave, Testing Re-Entry System

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo lands after its 54th test flight on Oct. 7, 2014. Credit: Scaled Composites / Jason DiVenere

Virgin Galactic has finished yet another stepping-stone to its first commercial spaceflight. The New Mexico-based company sent SpaceShipTwo aloft on a test of the re-entry system Oct. 7, making a safe landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

The company is among a handful of firms competing to bring well-heeled tourists into suborbital space. There are more than 700 people signed up to take a flight on SpaceShipTwo, with tickets running at $250,000 per seat. The spacecraft is put into the air using a carrier aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo, then separates for a brief flight in space. Exact timing for the first flight has not been disclosed yet, but it is expected to be in the coming months.

“SpaceShipTwo is safely back on the ground after her 54th test flight, including her tenth test of the feather system,” wrote Virgin Galactic in a tweet yesterday (Oct. 7). “Coupled with several good, full duration ground tests of SS2’s rocket motor in recent weeks, today’s flight brings spaceflight closer.”

Feathered Flight during Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's third powered flight on January 10,  2014 over the Mojave desert. This image was taken by MARS Scientific as part of the Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System optical tracking system.
Feathered Flight during Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo’s third powered flight on January 10, 2014, over the Mojave desert. This image was taken by MARS Scientific as part of the Mobile Aerospace Reconnaissance System optical tracking system.

It’s been a long road to space for Virgin Galactic, which last week commemorated the 10th anniversary of the predecessor prototype spacecraft (SpaceShipOne) making a second flight into suborbital space Oct. 4, 2004, to win the Ansari X-Prize — the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight in 1961.

The spacecraft was built by Scaled Composites and today is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan subsequently designed SpaceShipTwo, but has since retired.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has pushed back the first spaceflight of the new spacecraft several times over the years. In recent statements he has said he was hoping the spacecraft would be ready early next year, but in an NBC news report from last week he simply said SpaceShipTwo is “on the verge” of starting flights.

More pictures from yesterday’s test flight are below.

How Private Space Companies Make Money Exploring The Final Frontier

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo soars in a powered flight test on Sept. 5, 2013. Credit: MarsScientific.com and Clay Center Observatory

TORONTO, CANADA – There’s a big difference in thinking between governments and the private companies that participate in space. While entities such as NASA can work on understanding basic human health or exploring the universe for the sake of a greater understanding, companies have a limitation: they need to eventually make a profit.

This was brought up in a human spaceflight discussion at the International Astronautical Congress today (Oct. 1), which included participants from agencies and companies alike. Below are some concepts for how private companies in the space world today are making their money.

“We have in space a movement towards more privatization … and also for more use of space activities in general and human space activity in the future by individual private persons,” said Johann Dietrich Worner, chairman of the executive board of DLR (Germany’s space agency), in the panel.

“You can imagine that even for the upcoming 10 to 20 to 30 years, the public funding is the basic funding for [space] activities while in other areas, we are already seeing that private money is doing its work if you look to communication and if you look to other activities, like for instance, research in space.”

But commercial spaceflight is already taking place, as some of these examples show.

Commercial crew

Would you ‘Enter the Dragon’? First look inside SpaceX Dragon V2 next generation astronaut spacecraft unveiled by CEO Elon Musk on May 29, 2014. Credit: Robert Fisher/AmericaSpace
Would you ‘Enter the Dragon’?
First look inside SpaceX Dragon V2 next generation astronaut spacecraft unveiled by CEO Elon Musk on May 29, 2014. Credit: Robert Fisher/AmericaSpace

The two successful companies in NASA’s latest round of commercial contracts — SpaceX (Dragon) and Boeing (CST-100) — are each receiving government money to develop their private space taxis. The companies are responsible for meeting certain milestones to receive funds. There is quite the element of risk involved because the commercial contracts are only given out in stages; you could be partway through developing the spacecraft and then discover you will not be awarded one for the next round. This is what happened to Sierra Nevada Corp., whose Dream Chaser concept did not receive more money in the announcement last month. The company has filed a legal challenge in response.

Private space travel

Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employee's of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt's wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its "mothership", WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.
Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan, surrounded by employees of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company, and Scaled Composites, and watch as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt’s wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its “mothership,” WhiteKnight2, over the Mojave CA area on April 29, 2013, at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.

Virgin Galactic and its founder, Richard Branson, are perhaps the most visible of the companies that are looking to bring private citizens into space — as long as they can pay $250,000 for a ride. The first flight of Virgin into space is expected in the next year. Customers must pay a deposit upfront upon registering and then the balance before they head into suborbit. In the case of Virgin, Branson has a portfolio of companies that can take on the financial risk during the startup phase, but eventually the company will look to turn a profit through the customer payments.

Asteroid mining

Artist concept of the ARKYD spacecraft by an asteroid. Credit: Planetary Resources.
Artist concept of the ARKYD spacecraft by an asteroid. Credit: Planetary Resources.

The business case for Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, the two self-proclaimed asteroid mining companies, hasn’t fully been released yet. We assume that the companies would look to make a profit through selling whatever resources they manage to dig up on asteroids, but bear in mind it would cost quite a bit of money to get a spacecraft there and back. Meanwhile, Planetary Resources is diversifying its income somewhat by initiatives such as the Arkyd-100 telescope, which will look for asteroids from Earth orbit. They raised money for the project through crowdsourcing.

Space station research

The International Space Station in March 2009 as seen from the departing STS-119 space shuttle Discovery crew. Credit: NASA/ESA
The International Space Station in March 2009 as seen from the departing STS-119 space shuttle Discovery crew. Credit: NASA/ESA

NanoRacks is a company that has research slots available on the International Space Station that it sells to entities looking to do research in microgravity. The company has places inside the station and can also deploy small satellites through a Japanese system. While the company’s website makes it clear that they are focused on ISS utilization, officials also express an interest in doing research in geocentric orbit, the moon or even Mars.

Do You Know 80s Kid Who Inspired Virgin Galactic? Branson Asks For Help Ahead Of First Spaceflight

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and Sir Richard Branson pose for photographer on the balcony of the new Spaceport Hangar, Monday October 17, 2011 near Las Cruces, New Mexico. It was part of a dedication and christening of the hangar to Virgin Galactic. Credit: Mark Greenberg

As Virgin Galactic aims for a spaceflight this year, founder Richard Branson is asking the public to help track down the kid (now an adult) who prompted him to start the company 26 years ago.

Above you can see a Virgin video showing an 1988 clip from an old BBC show called “Going Live!” Branson answered a question from a young fan, Shihan Musafer, asking if he’d go to space. Of course, you all know what his answer was.

“After that call, I set about registering the name Virgin Galactic,” Branson wrote in a blog post. “We’d love to track down Shihan to say a personal thank you for helping to inspire the idea with that phone call. We want to offer Shihan the chance to join Virgin Galactic as a VIP guest to witness a spaceflight.”

If you have any information, Branson encourages you to tweet @richardbranson and @virgingalactic with the hashtag #shihanmusafer. (Early results on Twitter show a lot of retweets and few ideas of how to find him.) Meanwhile, his company has been busy putting SpaceShipTwo through its paces, making powered test flights — such as this one you can see from January.

The USAF’s Super-Secret X-37B Approaches a Milestone

An artists' conception of the X-37B in Earth orbit. Credit: The U.S. Air Force.

A secretive mission will pass a quiet milestone at the end of this month when the U.S. Air Force’s unmanned spaceplane the X-37B surpasses 500 days in space.

Launched atop an Atlas V rocket flying in a 401 configuration from Cape Canaveral Florida after several delays on December 11th, 2012 on OTV-3, the X-37B has already surpassed its own record of 469 days in space set on OTV-2. Said milestone was crossed last month. If the current mission stays in space until April 25th of this year, it will have surpassed 500 days in space.

Two X-37Bs were built for the USAF, and the first test mission flew in 2010. NASA performed drop glide tests with an early variant of the X-37A in 2005 and 2006, and DARPA is thought to be a primary customer for the program as well.

Measuring just 8.8 metres in length, the X-37B is tiny compared to its more famous spaceplane cousin the U.S. Space Shuttle. The X-37B has a maximum weight at liftoff of 4,990 kilograms and features a payload bay 2.1 by 1.2 metres in size.

The spacecraft itself is solar powered, as it unfurls a panel — as depicted in many artists’ conceptions — once it’s in orbit. Of course, its mission profile is classified, and the X-37B could land unannounced at any time. The previous landings occurred at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and were only announced shortly thereafter.

Not only is this the longest continuous mission for any spaceplane,  but the ATV-3 is also the smallest, lightest and only the second spaceplane to land autonomously, the first being the Russian space shuttle Buran that flew one mission and landed after one orbit at the Baikonur Cosmodrome on November 15th, 1988.

The X-37B awaiting encapsulation for launch. Credit: U.S. Air Force.
The X-37B awaiting encapsulation for launch. Credit: U.S. Air Force.

The idea of a reusable spaceplane has been around since the dawn of the Space Age. The U.S. Space Shuttle program was the most high profile of these, having flown 135 missions from 1981 to 2011. But even the space shuttle launch system wasn’t fully reusable, expending its large orange external fuel tank after every mission and requiring extensive refurbishment for the solid rocket motors and orbiter after each and every flight. The Soviets abandoned Buran in 1988, and other examples of spaceplanes such as North American’s X-15 surpassed the 100 kilometre in altitude Kármán line marking the boundary to space, but were suborbital only. And this year, customers may get a chance to make similar suborbital hops into space aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane at $250,000 dollars a ticket.

But the most ambitious design for a true spaceplane was conceived in the 1960’s: Boeing’s X-20 Dyna-Soar, which was never built.

Classified satellites such as the X-37B are part of a longstanding and fascinating “secret space race” that has paralleled and shadowed the more well known space programs of various nations over the decades. These include the Corona program which ran from 1959 to 1972 and was only declassified in 1995, and satellites such as Lacrosse 5, which is notorious among satellite sleuths for the orbital “vanishing act” it sometimes pulls.

And speaking of which, you can track the X-37B from your backyard, tonight. Ground spotters first pegged its position in low Earth orbit during OTV-1 on May 22nd 2010, and the spacecraft currently sits in a 392 x 296 kilometre (nearly circular) orbit in an 43.5 degree inclination, making it visible from latitudes 55 degrees north to south. On a favorable overhead pass, the X-37B is easily visible shining at greater than magnitude +1. OTV-3’s NORAD ID designation is 39025 or 2012-071A, and although – like most classified payloads – it’s not available to the public on Space-Track, Heavens-Above does list upcoming sighting opportunities. Be sure to start watching a bit early, as the X-37B has been known to maneuver a bit in its orbit on occasion.

Of course, just what the X-37B is doing in orbit is anybody’s guess. Speculation is that it’s serving as a test bed for new technologies. Certainly, the ability to place interchangeable payloads in orbit is immediately apparent. It’s also worth noting that the X-37B makes multiple daily passes on its northward apex over North Korea and China. There’s also been speculation that the X-37B was designed to keep tabs on the Chinese space station Tiangong-1, although this can easily be refuted as they both lie in different orbits. There’s no word as to what’s to become of Tiangong-1, though China had said it was set to deorbit the station at the end of 2013, and it is still in space.

Looking ahead into the future, there has been talk about a larger crewed variant known as the X-37C, which will undoubtedly fly much shorter missions. For now, we can watch and wonder what it’s up to, as the X-37B glides silently overhead. Perhaps one day, its mission will declassified, and its tale can be told.

-For more info sat-tracking, check out our how-to post and also read about the fascinating true role that amateurs played during the Cold War and Operation Moonwatch.

 

Space Science Stories to Watch in 2014

Orion moves towards its first EFT-1 spaceflight later this year. (Credit: NASA).

There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, “May you live in interesting times,” and 2013 certainly fit the bill in the world of spaceflight and space science. The past year saw spacecraft depart for Mars, China land a rover on the Moon, and drama in low Earth orbit to repair the International Space Station. And all of this occurred against a landscape of dwindling budgets, government shutdowns that threatened launches and scientific research, and ongoing sequestration.

But it’s a brave new world out there. Here are just a few space-related stories that we’ll watching in 2014:

An artist's conception of ESA's Rosetta and Philae spacecraft approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA-J. Huart, 2013)
An artist’s conception of ESA’s Rosetta and Philae spacecraft approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA-J. Huart, 2013)

Rosetta to Explore a Comet: On January 20, 2014, the European Space Agency will hail its Rosetta spacecraft and awaken it for its historic encounter with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko later this year in August. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet. Launched way back in 2004, Rosetta promises to provide the cosmic encounter of the year.

The October 19th, 2014 passage of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Springs past Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The October 19th, 2014 passage of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Springs past Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A1 Siding Springs vs. Mars: A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that comet C/2013 A1 Siding Springs would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled out the chance of impact, the comet will still pass 41,300 kilometres from the Red Planet, just outside the orbit of its outer moon Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the +7th magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will a fleet of spacecraft both on and above the Martian surface.

A recent tweet from @NewHorizons_2015, a spacecraft that launched just weeks before Twitter in 2006.
A recent tweet from @NewHorizons_2015, a spacecraft that, ironically, launched just weeks before Twitter in 2006.

Spacecraft En Route to Destinations: Though no new interplanetary missions are set to depart the Earth in 2014, there are lots of exciting missions currently underway and headed for worlds yet to be explored. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is headed towards its encounter with 1 Ceres in February 2015. Juno is fresh off its 2013 flyby of the Earth and headed for orbital insertion around Jupiter in August 2016. And in November of this year, New Horizons will switch on permanently for its historic encounter with Pluto and its retinue of moons in July 2015.    

LUX & the Hunt for Dark Matter: It’s all around us, makes up the bulk of the mass budget of the universe, and its detection is THE name of the game in modern astrophysics. But just what is dark matter? Some tantalizing– and hotly contested –data came out late last year from of an unusual detector deep underground near Lead, South Dakota. The Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX) looks for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) interacting with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX requires its unique locale to block out interference from incoming cosmic rays. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology, whether or not detections by LUX prove to be conclusive.   

The LIGO Livingston Observatory. (Photos by Author)
The LIGO Livingston Observatory. (Photos by Author)

 The Hunt for Gravity Waves: Another story to watch may come out of Caltech’s twin gravity wave observatories when its Advanced LIGO system goes online later this year. Established in 2002, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is comprised of two detectors: one in Hanford Washington and one outside of Livingston, Louisiana. The detectors look for gravity waves generated by merging binary pulsars and black holes. Though no positive detections have yet been made, Advanced LIGO with boast ten times the sensitivity and may pave the way for a new era of gravitational wave astronomy.

An artist concept of MAVEN in orbit around Mars. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center).
An artist concept of MAVEN in orbit around Mars. (Credit: NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center).

 Spacecraft reach Mars: 2014 is an opposition year for the Red Planet, and with it, two new missions are slated to begin operations around Mars: India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) also known as Mangalyaan-1 is slated to enter orbit on September 24th, and NASA’s MAVEN or Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission is set to arrive just 2 days earlier on September 22nd. MOM and MAVEN will join the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and  the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in the quest to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Space Tourism Takes Off: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo passed a key milestone test flight in late 2013. Early 2014 may see the first inaugural flights by Virgin Galactic out of the Mohave Spaceport and the start of sub-orbital space tourism. SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. Hey, room for any space journalists in there? On standby, maybe?

The First Flight of Orion: No, it’s not the first flight of the proposed sub-light interplanetary spacecraft that was to be propelled by atomic bombs… but the September launch of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) will be a  short uncrewed flight and test the capsule during reentry after two orbits. It’s to be seen if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV will occur by the end of the decade.

Launch of the SpaceX CRS-2 mission to the ISS in early 2013. (Photo by author).
Launch of the SpaceX CRS-2 mission to the ISS in early 2013. (Photo by author)

 The First Flight of the Falcon Heavy: 2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, starting with the launch of Thaicom-6 out of Cape Canaveral this Friday on January 3rd. SpaceX is now “open for business,” and expect to see them conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.… more to come!

The Sunjammer Space Sail: An interesting mission moves in 2014 towards a January 2015 launch: LGarde’s Sunjammer solar sail. Sunjammer will test key solar sail technologies as well as deliver the Solar Wind Analyzer (SWAN) and the MAGIC Magnetometer to the L1 Earth-Sun Lagrange point. Sunjammer will launch on a Falcon-9 rocket and deploy a 1200 square metre solar sail weighing only 32 kilograms. This will be a great one for ground satellite-spotters to track as well as it heads out!

Gaia Opens for Business: Launched on a brilliant night-shot out of the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19th of last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its astrometry mission in 2014, creating most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy. But we also anticipate exciting new discoveries due to spin-offs from this mission, to include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more.

And as in years previous, the quest to explore brave new worlds will be done against the backdrop of tightening budgets. Just like in household budgets, modern spaceflight is a continual conflict between what we would wish and what we can afford. In recent years, no mission seems to be safe, and there have even been occasional congressional rumblings to pull the plug on missions already underway. Interesting times, indeed… 2014 promises to be an extraordinary time in spaceflight and space science, both on Earth and beyond.

NBC To Broadcast Virgin Galactic’s First Commercial Spaceflight

Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. Think you could fly them? Credit: Virgin Galactic.

In true Richard Branson flair, the founder of Virgin Galactic has a multimedia plan in place for when he and his adult children, Holly and Sam, take the first planned tourist spaceflight next year. Virgin Galactic and NBCUniversal signed a “multi-platform partnership” for the network’s affiliates to transmit the flight all over the place.

Disclosed platforms so far include CNBC, MSNBC, NBCNews.com, Syfy and The Weather Channel. They also plan a “primetime special” on NBC on the launch’s eve, and to host a live event for three hours on NBC’s Today show. Financial terms were not released.

“Virgin Galactic is thrilled that NBCUniversal will join us on our exciting first journey to space,” stated Branson. “In this first chapter of commercial space travel, we will help make space accessible and inspire countless more people to join us in the pursuit of space exploration and science innovation.”

Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo is in the midst of powered flight tests and the company has hundreds of people signed up for flights. The company is one of several American contenders to run space tourism flights regularly, with XCOR Aerospace and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin among the most cited competitors.

Virgin Galactic Ticket To Space Promised In New Reality Show Deal

Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. Think you could fly them? Credit: Virgin Galactic.

Call it Space Survivor. Thirteen years after that now-classic desert island nightmare premiered on NBC, the executive producer behind Survivor is planning to host another reality competition that will land the winner a rocket trip to space.

We don’t know yet what feats of strength, endurance, intelligence or teamwork (or is that backstabbing?) will be needed to score a trip with Virgin Galactic. A press release simply promises a “groundbreaking, elimination competition series where everyday people compete for the ultimate prize”, but we sure hope a lot of the individual contests are space-related.

“For the past 10 years I have relentlessly pursued my dream of using a TV show to give an everyday person the chance to experience the black sky of space and look down upon mother Earth,” stated executive producer Mark Burnett, who heads One Three Media. Burnett seems to have chosen the Richard Branson-backed SpaceShipTwo (now doing powered flight tests) as the best chance of getting competitors into space in the near future.

Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employees of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt's wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its "mothership", WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.
Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employees of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt’s wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its “mothership”, WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.

“Last year, I spent time in New Mexico at the state-of-the-art facility and last week [I] spent time in the Mojave desert with Sir Richard and his impressive team. We got to see the spaceship up close and hear of Sir Richard’s incredible vision of how Virgin Galactic is the future of private space travel. I am thrilled to be part of a series that will give the everyday person a chance to see space, and that NBC has come on board too so that viewers at home will have a first-class seat.”

Virgin says its first spaceflight with SpaceShipTwo will be in 2014, and soon after it will open the manifest to the more than 600 folks who have purchased tickets.

As for when we’ll expect to see Space Race hit the airwaves, let’s just caution that this is just an agreement so far and nothing firm has been decided.

Recall that in 2000, Burnett announced another deal with NBC to host a space reality show (Destination Mir), with the winner visiting the Russian space station Mir. That idea fell apart when the cash-strapped Russian Federal Space Agency elected to deorbit the aging station in 2001 and focus its resources on the International Space Station.

Burnett subsequently proposed another show that would have brought ‘N Sync guitarist Lance Bass to the International Space Station, but that idea never got off the ground.

SpaceShipTwo Feathers Wings During Second Powered Test Flight

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo soars in a powered flight test on Sept. 5, 2013. Credit: MarsScientific.com and Clay Center Observatory

Is that the smell of rocket fuel in the air, or customer excitement?

The reported 600+ customers waiting in line for a trip to space aboard SpaceShipTwo (nickname: Enterprise) surely must have been excited when the suborbital spaceship successfully sailed through another powered flight test today (Thursday).

“SS2 has successfully completed another supersonic rocket-powered test flight! Hit our planned duration, altitude, and speed,” Virgin Galactic wrote on Twitter.

Watch the video of the flight below:

SpaceShipTwo also tested a “feathering” system that it has on board to assist with controlled re-entry. It allows the entire tail of the spaceship to rotate up to about 65 degrees, which Virgin says allows fine control of the attitude as the spacecraft comes back to Earth. “The feather configuration is also highly stable, effectively giving the pilot a hands-free re-entry capability, something that has not been possible on spacecraft before,” Virgin said of the system on its website.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, aboard WhiteKnightTwo, takes off during a flight test Sept. 5, 2013. Credit: Virgin Galactic (Twitter)
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, aboard WhiteKnightTwo, takes off during a flight test Sept. 5, 2013. Credit: Virgin Galactic (Twitter)

The test, which started at about 8 a.m. Mojave time, saw the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft take off from the Mojave Air and Space Port carrying SpaceShipTwo underneath. At 46,000 feet, pilots Mark Stucky and Clint Nichols released their spacecraft from the carrier and turned on the rocket motor for a 20-second burn. They climbed as high as 69,000 feet at a maximum speed of Mach 1.43, or 1.43 times the speed of sound.

“The main progress with this test is that we deployed the full expansion (up and down) of the feather mechanism at a high altitude, alongside testing the rocket motor performance,” wrote Virgin founder Richard Branson on his blog. “This feather mechanism was the key innovation that enabled us to get into the space program in the first place. It acts like a giant shuttlecock and slows the spaceship up as it comes back into the earth’s atmosphere.”

Branson also described Thursday’s test — the second powered flight for SpaceShipTwo, which did its first in April — as “the highest commercial winged vehicle [flight] in history.”

Reports say Branson and some members of his family will be on the first test flight. Should that go to plan, there is a parade of celebrities and ordinary citizens to come. Read more about SpaceShipTwo’s expected flight profile here.