More details are emerging of the first free-flight of the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) space vehicle which took place in perfect weather conditions at Mojave, Calif, early in the morning on Oct 10.
SS2 descends towards Mojave during today's flight. (Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenburg)
The 60-ft long, 42-ft wing span SS2 was released from the WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) mothership at an altitude of 45,000-ft and made a successful gliding landing at the desert airfield some 15 minutes later. The flight marks the start of the third of a seven-phase test program which is expected to culminate with the start of Virgin Galactic’s space tourism and science flights in 2012.
The initial phases of ground testing began following the roll-out of SS2 in December 2009, while captive carriage flight testing was initiated in March 2010. Unpowered glide testing, which follows four captive carriage flights to simulate SS2 approaches, will be used to refine the vehicle’s aerodynamics and low speed handling qualities. For the Oct 10 flight, Scaled Composites had a cover over the nozzle of the Sierra Nevada RM2 hybrid rocket, and tufts below the duct to visualize the local flowfield around the composite-skin nozzle section.
The fourth test phase, which will involve high-speed subsonic flight with a short burst of power from the RM2, is expected to begin early in 2011. A fifth flight test phase, using longer rocket burns, will open up the supersonic, higher-altitude corner of the SS2 flight envelope. Once cleared, SS2 will move into the sixth phase which is centered on sub-orbital flights. Release altitudes for powered tests, including launches for sub-orbital flights, will be around 50,000-ft, some 5,000-ft higher than the reported altitude of the Oct 10 test release height.
The seventh, and final test period will involve extensive safety of flight and system robustness demonstrations for FAA Commercial Space Transportation operational approval. Earlier comments by Scaled Composite’s founder Burt Rutan suggest the latter phases could cover between 50 and 100 flights before certification.