History was made this week by Virgin Galactic as the SpaceShipTwo was released at a high altitude by a plane, skyrocketing upwards towards space in mere seconds following its release. Virgin Galactic is a private space tourism company that is working on the prototype for a space tourist vehicle, currently dubbed the SpaceShipTwo. Until now, however, plans had merely been diagrams and speculations, with about 25 limited air tests. Now, however, it’s official: the ships can be launched successfully into space from a mid-air, high altitude launch via a tow jet.
California’s Mojave Air and Spaceport hosted the inaugural test flight. SpaceShipTwo ascended to its primary launch altitude (46,000 feet or 14,000 meters), carried there by WhiteKnightTwo, the mothership that’s designed to tow the spaceships into the optimal altitude for launch. 16 seconds later, SpaceShipTwo reached its designated altitude: 56,000 feet (17,000 meters). This test is the 26th official test of the vehicle, and the first that actually powered the flight into mach 1.2 speeds, which are faster than the speed of sound (761 MPH).
“The rocket motor ignition went as planned, with the expected burn duration, good engine performance and solid vehicle handling qualities throughout,” Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides said in a statement. “The successful outcome of this test marks a pivotal point for our program. We will now embark on a handful of similar powered flight tests, and then make our first test flight to space.”
SpaceShipTwo is classified as a suborbital vehicle. It was designed to act as the world’s first space tourism vehicle. It’s intended to carry passengers into space and then back again. The meager price tag for a tour of space? About $200,000 (USD).
The company is backed by billionaire Sir Richard Branson, best known for his conglomerate of Virgin branded technologies and communication entities.
“This is a momentous day and the single most important flight test to date for our Virgin Galactic program,” Branson wrote in a blog post on Virgin’s website. “What a feeling to be on the ground with all the team in Mojave to witness the occasion.”
If the test flights continue as anticipated, the space tourist company could start offering flights as soon as the end of 2013, or early in 2014.
You can learn more about this project at: http://www.virgingalactic.com/