Virgin Galactic returned to flight on Thursday, Sept. 8, for the first time since a tragic accident in October 2014, that killed one of the company’s pilot and destroyed the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. Thursday’s test run, called a captive carry flight, saw the second SpaceShipTwo, flying attached to the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft for three hours and 43 minutes.
During the test flight, the SpaceShipTwo named VSS Unity, was piloted by Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay, while the WhiteKnightTwo called VMS Eve, was flown by Mike Masucci and Todd Ericson along with flight test engineer Wes Persall. The spaceships took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California and the VMS Eve carried the VSS Unity to an attitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters). The SpaceShipTwo remained attached to its mothership for the entire flight.
The test was conducted to measure the performance of many of the spacecraft’s subsystems and components at cold temperatures, low atmospheric pressures and high aircraft-like altitudes.
“In this configuration, WhiteKnightTwo serves as a veritable ‘flying wind tunnel,’ allowing the highest fidelity method of testing airflow around SpaceShipTwo while simultaneously testing how the spaceship performs when exposed to the frigid temperatures found at today’s maximum altitude of about 50,000 feet and above,” Virgin Galactic said in a press release.
Now, the company’s team will study the data gathered during the flight, analyzing what worked well and what could be improved next tests. Virgin Galactic hopes that Thursday’s test run will make its next flights more efficient, effective, and safe. However, in order to advance into the next phase of test flights, the company still needs to conduct detailed vehicle inspections and more captive carry flights.
“Yesterday’s flight was a culmination of years of hard work by our dedicated team, past and present, to build a company and build a beautiful spaceship. Our tireless and dedicated team makes me so proud: their commitment to the program, to safety, to our founding astronauts, and to our vision to open access to space led us to this first flight test,” Virgin Galactic’s founder Richard Branson wrote in a blog post.
SpaceShipTwo is a reusable, winged spacecraft, designed to carry six passengers plus two pilots into suborbital space. The spaceplane is carried into the air by the WhiteKnightTwo, which releases it at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters). Then, the SpaceShipTwo ignites its hybrid rocket motor and powers the spacecraft until it reaches the so-called ‘Karman line’ – the boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and outer space at an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers). After several minutes in space, the spaceship then re-enters the atmosphere and lands on a runway like an airplane. The price for such a suborbital trip is currently $250,000 per seat.
First SpaceShipTwo named VSS Enterprise, crashed on Oct. 31, 2014, during a rocket powered test, killing the co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injuring Peter Siebold piloting the spacecraft. The spaceplane experienced an in-flight anomaly about 40 minutes after takeoff and broke up at 45,000 feet (13,700 meters). The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found the "feathering" re-entry system was deployed prematurely, causing the explosion.
After the investigation, NTSB imposed design changes in SpaceShipTwo that would eliminate similar errors in the future. Due to this, Virgin Galactic worked on improving safety and automation systems, what should prevent the re-entry mechanism from unfolding too early again. On Feb. 19, 2016, the company unveiled its second SpaceShipTwo – the VSS Unity.
WhiteKnightTwo is a four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry and release SpaceShipTwo and the company’s LauncherOne rocket. The aircraft is currently fully operational after completing an extensive four-and-a-half year flight test program.
Both SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo were built by The Spaceship Company - Virgin Galactic’s wholly owned manufacturing arm.