Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnight2 (WK2) mothership for its upcoming SpaceShip2 sub-orbital space tourism venture was rolled out on July 28 at Mojave, Calif. with all the razzmatazz the media has come to expect from a Virgin event.
The 140 ft. span WK2 has many of the hallmarks of a Burt Rutan/Scaled Composites design, but this time on steroids. Powered by four PW308As, the aircraft consists of two identical fuselage booms suspended under a high wing which is cranked upwards in the middle to provide plenty of room for the SS2. Inspired by WK1, which since lofting SS1 to win the X-Prize in 2004 has carried other payloads, the Virgin Galactic dream also includes using WK2 to lift everything from sensors and science experiments to sub-orbital passenger transports and space launch vehicles.
Here’s a selection of my photos to give you a feel for the event.
Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan 'reveal' WK2
Rutan turns his back on the crowd to address his newest 'baby'. The twin-boom, high aspect ratio layout of the WK2 makes it hard to photograph on the ground. The shot below, taken from our departing Virgin America A320, gives a better overall sense of the aircraft's highly unusual configuration.
Scaled workers have nick-named it the 'Tri-tops', short for triceratops, because of the three 'horns' it will have when carrying the SS2. Virgin Galactic, however, is naming the prototype 'Eve' in honor of Sir Richard's mother who was there to christen it with a champagne bottle.
New design features of the Model 348, as it is officially designated, include hybrid composite-metallic flight control cables which are designed to cope better with the differing coefficients of expansion at the below freezing temperatures of the WK2's 48,000 ft. cruise altitude. The 140 ft. span wing also relies on two primary, one-piece, all-composite spars that run from tip-to-tip. The payload will be suspended beneath the 46 ft. wide clear span beneath the two fuselage booms. Virgin Galactic is considering offering seats in both booms for family members who will be able to get a grandstand view as their loved ones drop and launch on a journey of a lifetime. Presumably only if the FAA, EASA and other agencies can agree on appropriate certification requirements. The fuselage-mounted cabin and cockpit on the right side, identical to the SS2, will also be used for training and familiarization.
The central butt line beneath the central span marks where the pylon attachment will be fitted for SS2 and possibly other payloads.