Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Makes First Glide Flight

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Does this image look futuristic? Well, the future is here, as this is an actual image from October 10, 2010 (today!) Virgin Galactic’s future passenger ship made its first manned glide flight on Sunday. SpaceShipTwo’s unpowered flighted lasted about 11 minutes after the spacecraft was released from its White Knight Two mother ship, Eve, at 13,700 meters (45,000 feet) over the Mojave Desert. Scaled Composites test pilot Pete Siebold flew her down to the Mojave Spaceport, with with Mike Alsbury as co-pilot. “The VSS Enterprise was a real joy to fly,” said Siebold after landing, “especially when one considers the fact that the vehicle has been designed not only to be a Mach 3.5 spaceship capable of going into space but also one of the worlds highest altitude gliders.”

UPDATE: Virgin has now released a video of the flight, see below.

SpaceShipTwo will carry six people in addition to two pilots, providing those on board with a view of space and several minutes of weightlessness once space flights begin. Eventual operational flights of SpaceShipTwo will occur from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Latest word is that the first passenger flights could begin in 2011.

All the flight and all systems appeared to operate trouble free. After a clean release, Siebold completed initial flight handling and stall characteristic evaluation of SpaceShipTwo. After completing a practice approach and landing, Siebold made a smooth landing.

VSS Enterprise glides through the Mojave skies. Credit: Virgin Galactic, Mark Greenberg

“This was one of the most exciting days in the whole history of Virgin,” said Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic. “For the first time since we seriously began the project in 2004, I watched the world’s first manned commercial spaceship landing on the runway at Mojave Air and Space Port and it was a great moment. Now, the sky is no longer the limit and we will begin the process of pushing beyond to the final frontier of space itself over the next year.”

“This is a critical milestone in Virgin Galactic’s test program and a great day for the commercial spaceflight industry,” added John Gedmark, Executive Director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “At the end of the day, getting hardware off the ground is what it’s really all about. Today’s SpaceShipTwo test flight marks another key milestone towards opening the space frontier for private individuals, researchers, and explorers. Congratulations to the entire SpaceShipTwo team.”

SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo are being developed for Virgin Galactic by Scaled Composites, who built SpaceShipOne, the first privately-built vehicle to fly a person into space, which won the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE.

Future passengers will be flown about 100km (62 miles) above the Earth and experience several minutes of weightlessness before returning to Spaceport America. Tickets cost $200,000 and deposits start from $20,000. Find more info about passenger flights at Virgin Galactic’s website

Sources: Virgin Galactic, Commercial Spaceflight Federation

Virgin’s Spaceship Enterprise Makes First Crewed Flight

For the first time, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, named the Enterprise, flew with crew on board. While it stayed attached to the “Eve” mothership for the duration of the July 15 flight, Scaled Composites – the builders of the spacecraft – called the flight a “significant milestone as the team marches towards the first solo flights.” Numerous combined vehicle systems tests were conducted, as two crew members on board VSS Enterprise evaluated all of the spaceship’s systems and functions from end to end in the air, and all objectives were achieved.

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This was the third time the Enterprise had flown in its “captive carry” configuration, but the first time with crew on board. It was the 33rd flight for WhiteKnightTwo, also known as Eve. The flight time was 6 hours 12 minutes.

The crew on the Enterprise was Peter Siebold, Michael Alsbury, and on board Eve were Mark Stucky, Peter Kalogiannis, and Brian Maisler.

SpaceShipTwo can fly up to eight people (six passengers and two pilots) on suborbital flights that would provide a weightless experience for 4-6 minutes. Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, has stated that the company would “not put a definite timeline on when the commercial flights would begin” but if all goes according to plan they hope to make their first passenger flights in 2011. Tickets are on sale for $200,000 per person.

First Flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo

Virgin Galactic, the private aerospace company founded by billionaire Richard Branson, successfully tested the passenger space-plane SpaceShipTwo today. SpaceShipTwo (SS2), is also called the Virgin Space Ship Enterprise, or VSS Enterprise, an obvious tribute to another space vehicle of some note. SS2 was carried to 45,000 feet (13.7km) by its mothership, named WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), or ‘Eve’, after Branson’s mother. In this initial ‘captive carry’ test of the space plane, it remained attached to the mothership for the duration of the flight.

The SS2/WK2 combo took off from a runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, and flew for approximately three hours over the deserts of the Antelope Valley. SS2 is a prototype passenger vehicle that is designed to take astronauts to suborbital flight. If the remaining tests go as planned, it will eventually take a crew of two pilots and up to six passengers to the edge of space, at just over 100km (62 miles).This may happen as early as the end of 2011.

SpaceShipTwo is an all-carbon composite plane that uses a hybrid rocket motor, and will be carried to 50,000 feet (15.2 km) by WhiteKnightTwo before being released. It will then fire the rocket to propel it above the Karman line.

Here’s a video of the takeoff and landing of SS2 today:

SS2 was unveiled to the public in December of last year, and this is the first in a series of tests to determine how safe and operational the craft is before it can begin to bring passengers into space. It will undergo another captive carry flight to 50,000 feet, and then will be brought into the air by WK2 and released in subsequent tests.

SpaceShipTwo was designed by Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, who also led the design team for SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X-Prize of $10 million in 2004 for completing the first series of manned commercial spaceflights.

If you have $200,000 laying around and want to go into space, SS2 is your space plane. However, you’re going to have to get in line: over 300 people have already signed up for seats on the plane.

Source: Space.com, Virgin Galactic

Branson Wants to Fly Space Tourists into the Northern Lights

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For his next big plan for the private space industry, Richard Branson is thinking up new ways to excite affluent space tourists: flying them into the biggest lightshow on Earth, the Aurora Borealis. Although the New Mexico Virgin Galactic Spaceport isn’t scheduled for completion until 2010, the British entrepreneur is already planning his next project intended for cruises into the spectacular space phenomenon from an Arctic launchpad.

Located in the far north of Sweden (in the Lapland province), the small town of Kiruna has a long history of space observation and rocket launches. The Arctic location provides the town with unrivalled views of the Aurora Borealis as it erupts overhead. The Auroral lightshow is generated by atmospheric reactions to impacting solar wind particles as they channel along the Earth’s magnetic field and down into the thickening atmospheric gases.

Once a view exclusive only to sounding rockets, this awe inspiring sight may in the future be seen from the inside, and above, by fee-paying space tourists as they are launched into space from a new spaceport, on the site of an existing base called Esrange. Although launching humans into an active aurora holds little scientific interest (if it did, it would have probably been done by now), it does pose some prudent health and safety questions. As Dr Olle Norberg, Esrange’s director, confidently states: “Is there a build-up of charge on the spacecraft? What is the radiation dose that you would receive? Those studies came out saying it is safe to do this.” Phew, that’s a relief.

The chance to actually be inside this magnificent display of light will be an incredible selling point for Virgin Galactic and their SpaceShipTwo flights. As if going into space were not enough, you can see and fly through the atmosphere at it’s most magnificent too.

Source: The Guardian Unlimited