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

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.

Black Sky: Virgin’s Spaceship Carrier Takes To Air For 150th Time

As Virgin Galactic gets ready for its first space test of SpaceShipTwo — a feat widely expected to take place later this year — the private company recently posted a new photo of the carrier aircraft that will bring the spaceship to altitude for its kick to orbit. Called WhiteKnightTwo, the aircraft completed its 150th flight.

The post comes not too long after Virgin and others commemorated the 10th anniversary of SpaceShipOne’s first flight into space. The company subsequently sent the spacecraft there again, winning the Ansari X-Prize.

The Scaled Composites spaceship sparked an agreement with Virgin Galactic to start what the companies call the world’s first spaceliner, Virgin Galactic. The first test flight has been pushed back several years during development. Virgin founder Richard Branson has said he is planning to be on the first flight, along with some of his family.

SpaceShipTwo Feathers Wings During Second Powered Test Flight

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.

SpaceShipTwo Successfully Tests “Feathered” Flight

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Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo achieved a major milestone early Wednesday 4th May 2011, as it successfully demonstrated its unique reentry ‘feather’ configuration for the first time. This test flight, the third in less than two weeks, brings powered test flights and — ultimately — commercial operations a step closer.

SpaceShipTwo on the runway after returning from its successful test flight. Credit: Tiffany Titus

SpaceShipTwo (SS2), named VSS Enterprise, went airborne attached to WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft, VMS Eve at 6:43AM PDT at the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. After a 45 minute climb to 51,500 feet, SS2 was released from VMS Eve and established a stable glide profile before deploying, for the first time, its re-entry or “feathered” configuration by rotating the tail section of the vehicle upwards to a 65 degree angle to the fuselage. It remained in this configuration with the vehicle’s body at a level pitch for approximately 1 minute and 15 seconds while descending, almost vertically, at around 15,500 feet per minute, slowed by the powerful shuttlecock-like drag created by the raised tail section. At around 33,500 feet the pilots reconfigured the spaceship to its normal glide mode and executed a smooth runway touchdown, approximately 11 minutes and 5 seconds after its release from VMS Eve.

WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo in flight after separation. Credit: Tiffany Titus.

Virgin Galactic says all objectives for the flight were met and detailed flight data is now being analyzed by the engineers at Scaled Composites, designers and builders of Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital spacecraft.

“This morning’s spectacular flight by VSS Enterprise was its third in 12 days, reinforcing the fast turnaround and frequent flight-rate potential of Virgin Galactic’s new vehicles,” said George Whitesides, CEO and President of Virgin Galactic. “ We have also shown this morning that the unique feathering re-entry mechanism, probably the single most important safety innovation within the whole system, works perfectly. This is yet another important milestone successfully passed for Virgin Galactic, and brings us ever closer to the start of commercial operations. Credit is due to the whole Scaled team, whose meticulous planning and great skill are changing the course of history.”

“In all test flight programs, after the training, planning and rehearsing, there comes the moment when you have to go up there and fly it for real,” said Pete Siebold, who along with Clint Nichols piloted SS2. “This morning’s flight was a test pilot’s dream. The spaceship is a joy to fly and the feathered descent portion added a new, unusual but wonderful dynamic to the ride. The fact that it all went to plan, that there were no surprises and that we brought VSS Enterprise back to Mojave safe and sound is a great testament to the whole team.”

For more information see the Virgin Galactic website.

Many thanks to Tiffany Titus for allowing Universe Today to post her images of today’s test flight. You can see more of her images from the flight on her Facebook page.

Watch WhiteKnightTwo Take Flight (Video)


Attendees at the AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin were treated with watching Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo take flight. On board the mothership — which will launch space tourism and science customers into space — was none other than Vigin’s founder Richard Branson. “This was one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” Branson said after the flight. “It’s a beautiful aircraft to fly and its incredibly light carbon construction and efficient design points the way to a much brighter future for commercial aviation as well as the industrial revolution in space which I believe our entire space launch system heralds.”
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