Virgin Galactic's VSS Enterprise achieves first captive carry flight
Virgin Galactic continues to rack-up the milestones in its quest to get sub-orbital space tourism up and running, this time with its inaugural “captive carry” test flight. VSS Enterprise (formerly known as SpaceShipTwo before it was renamed at its unveiling in December) spent 2 hours 54 minutes attached to the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft in the skies above the Mojave Air and Spaceport, California. The spaceship will be cut loose from its carrier for independent glide and then powered flight testing as the program continues through 2010 and 2011, then it's all-aboard for paying customers.
Both VSS Enterprise and the WK2 mothership (christened EVE) were developed by Ansari X prize Scaled Composites.
“This is a momentous day for the Scaled and Virgin Teams", said Scaled founder Burt Rutan. "The captive carry flight signifies the start of what we believe will be extremely exciting and successful spaceship flight test program.”
The captive carry test flight achieved an altitude of 45,000 ft (13716 metres), just shy of the 50,000 ft release height planned for when actual flights get underway.
When the US$200K ticket-holders do climb on board, VSS Enterprise will hit Mach 4 after the release and cross the Kármán line (the internationally defined boundary between Earth and space of 100 km) to reach a maximum height of 361,000 ft (110 km) before gliding home.
Virgin Galactic says it has already taken around US$45m in deposits for spaceflight reservations from over 330 people would-be astronauts.
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Virgin´s Enterprise goes straight up like a baseball batted straight up, to 110km and then falls straight back down. The ride up begins at 50,000 feet, after separating from the plane carrying the Enterprise, some 14 kms up, where the atmosphere is already thin and accelerates to Mach 4 in that thin air, thus eliminating much of the friction hassles.
When the engine is shut off inertia carries Enterprise higher still until speed is almost zero. Then the tail assembly swivels up as an airbrake to keep descent speed down and to stabilize the vehicle until Enterprise reaches air thick enough to glide the rest of the way down like an airplane. This part is flown with the tail assembly in the normal position.
Designwise Enterprise was built to attain suborbital space only, and the space part of the ride is that part of the parabole above 100km. To attain escape velocity much more energy is needed and for re-entry the vehicle has to sustain the re-entry heat. It is more difficult, more expensive and more dangerous.
But the ride on Enterprise must be quite something all the same. If you have a few excess dollars floating around and you are looking for a way to enjoy spending them this might be a nice way to do that.