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MOJAVE, Calif. – Yesterday, Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s aabar Investments PJS, completed the first rocket-powered flight of its space vehicle, SpaceShipTwo (SS2). The test , conducted by teams from Scaled Composites (Scaled) and Virgin Galactic, officially marks Virgin Galactic’s entrance into the final phase of vehicle testing prior to commercial service from Spaceport America in New Mexico.  The name of the specific craft that became the first commercial spaceship ever built to break the sound barrier under its own power is, fittingly, “Enterprise”.

“The first powered flight of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was without any doubt, our single most important flight test to date,” said Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson, who was on the ground in Mojave to witness the occasion. “For the first time, we were able to prove the key components of the system, fully integrated and in flight. Today’s supersonic success opens the way for a rapid expansion of the spaceship’s powered flight envelope, with a very realistic goal of full space flight by the year’s end. We saw history in the making today and I couldn’t be more proud of everyone involved.”

The test began at 7.02am local time when SS2 took off from Mojave Air and Space Port mated to WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), Virgin Galactic’s carrier aircraft.

SS2 was released from its carrier craft 45 minutes into the flight at an altitude of 47,000 feet. After giving everything a recheck to make sure everything was smooth and stable, they lit the rocket motor, propelling SS2 forward and upward to a maximum altitude of 55,000 feet. The entire engine burn lasted 16 seconds, and SS2 reached Mach 1.2.  The rocket motor uses an interesting solid rubber fuel, and the entire engine casing can be replaced and the entire craft reused.

The entire rocket-powered flight test lasted just over 10 minutes, culminating in a smooth landing for SS2 in Mojave at approximately 8am local time.

Piloting SS2 were Mark Stucky, pilot, and Mike Alsbury, co-pilot, who are test pilots for Scaled, which built SS2 for Virgin Galactic. At the WK2 controls were Virgin Galactic’s Chief Pilot Dave Mackay, assisted by Clint Nichols and Brian Maisler, co-pilot and flight test engineer, respectively, for Scaled.

In the coming months, the Virgin Galactic and Scaled test team will expand the spaceship’s powered flight envelope culminating in full space flight, which the companies anticipate will take place before the end of 2013.

About the Enterprise (SpaceShipTwo, or SS2)

The Enterprise is 60 feet (18.3 meters) long (more than twice the length of SpaceShipOne) and 7.5 feet (2.3 m) wide. It has a wing span of 27 feet (8.2 m), a tail height of 15 feet (4.6 m) and can carry two pilots and six passengers. The passenger cabin is 12 feet (3.7 m) long and 7.5 feet (2.3 m) wide. Virgin Galactic compares SS2 to a Gulfstream business jet.

The SS2 features:

  • A carbon-composite double hull made of carbon sandwich panels with a honeycomb core. The hull enables a fully pressurized cabin so that passengers and pilots won’t have to wear bulky space suits.
  • A hybrid rocket motor that’s part solid rocket and part liquid. It uses nitrous oxide oxidizer and tire rubber fuel. The nitrous oxide self-pressurizes and is stored in a tank behind the cabin (the tank makes up the cabin’s rear bulkhead). The case, throat and nozzle (CTN) are made of solid rubber fuel. A main valve and igniter lights the nitrous oxide as it flows over the rubber fuel and out the nozzle. The CTN burns out and can be replaced for the next flight.
  • Double-pane windows that are capable of withstanding pressure differences across the cabin wall. They’ll provide numerous views of the Earth and space.
  • Thrusters (pressurized containers of air) that help the spacecraft pitch, roll and yaw
  • Rudders and elevons, flight control surfaces that will help SS2 maneuver while gliding for landing
  • Two hatches — one for entry and exit and another for emergency exit
  • A feather mechanism (pneumatically operated controls that rotate the wings). Feathering places the wings in an upward position for re-entry. The feathered position produces drag, slows the spacecraft and allows it to gently fall back through the upper parts of the Earth’s atmosphere like a badminton shuttlecock. This technique reduces the g-forces and heat buildup of re-entry.

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