Space

Sixteen-second engine burn pushes Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo past the sound barrier and into history

Sixteen-second engine burn pus...
Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo climbing into the stratosphere on thirty tons of thrust (Photo: Galactic Virgin)
Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo climbing into the stratosphere on thirty tons of thrust (Photo: Galactic Virgin)
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White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo being towed to the runway (Photo: Virgin Galactic)
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White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo being towed to the runway (Photo: Virgin Galactic)
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo banking on a glide test (Photo: Virgin Galactic)
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Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo banking on a glide test (Photo: Virgin Galactic)
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo being carried to flight altitude by White Knight Two (Photo: Virgin Galactic)
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Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo being carried to flight altitude by White Knight Two (Photo: Virgin Galactic)
Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo climbing into the stratosphere on thirty tons of thrust (Photo: Galactic Virgin)
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Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo climbing into the stratosphere on thirty tons of thrust (Photo: Galactic Virgin)
View of SpaceShipTwo's rocket motor and plume during the sixteen second burn, as seen from the SST Burn Camera (Photo: Galactic Virgin)
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View of SpaceShipTwo's rocket motor and plume during the sixteen second burn, as seen from the SST Burn Camera (Photo: Galactic Virgin)

At 7:55 AM PDT this Monday, the Scaled Composites SpaceShipTwo (SST) attained a peak velocity of Mach 1.2 at an altitude of 55,000 feet (nearly 17 km) above the Mohave Desert with a 16-second burn of its 30-ton (27-tonne) thrust rocket engine. Piloted by Mark Stucky and Mike Alsbury with an assist from Dave Mackay in the mother bird White Knight Two, this flight marks a stepping-off point for commercial manned spaceflight.

Scaled Composites (SC) first flew SpaceShipOne into space on June 21, 2004, thereby winning the Ansari X Prize. Now, nearly nine years later, SC and Virgin Galactic have completed design and construction of the SpaceShipTwo, intended to launch six passengers and two pilots into space.

White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo being towed to the runway (Photo: Virgin Galactic)
White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo being towed to the runway (Photo: Virgin Galactic)

This lengthy design and testing effort culminated on April 12 in a "cold flow" test flight. Cold flow testing checks all components in the propulsion system, with only an ignition source standing between a glide test and a powered test. Today they lit that fire.

View of SpaceShipTwo's rocket motor and plume during the sixteen second burn, as seen from the SST Burn Camera (Photo: Galactic Virgin)
View of SpaceShipTwo's rocket motor and plume during the sixteen second burn, as seen from the SST Burn Camera (Photo: Galactic Virgin)

"Today was the most significant day in the program," Branson told NBC News afterward. "I think that for those people who have been good enough to stick with us for the last eight years, who signed up early on, their time to become astronauts is very soon now. ... We'll soon be able to make their dreams come true."

    Launch Timeline
  • 6:50 AM PDT – The Proteus chase plane took off to get into position to monitor the test flight. Proteus is a twin-turbofan, high-altitude aircraft designed to reach altitudes above 60,000 ft (18,288 meters) and remain on station up to 14 hours;
  • 6:58 AM PDT – An unknown airplane attempted to land at the Mohave Air and Space Port, apparently not having checked the FAA notices to airmen;
  • 7:02 AM PDT – White Knight Two, with SST nestled beneath her wings, took off;
  • 7:55 AM PDT – SST launched and engines fired for 16 seconds;
  • 7:57 AM PDT – SST gliding down to land following engine firing;
  • 8:05 AM PDT – SST lands back at Mojave.
  • Sources: Virgin Galactic/Douglas Messier via Twitter

    5 comments
    Derek Howe
    Great News, it took a long time, but it sure is great to finally see this thing very close to actually living up to its name "spaceship". Also, that wingtip camera picture is freakin awesome.
    Slowburn
    I'm saving up for it.
    OuldBill
    WoW! - Mach 1.2! -That's nearly half as fast as the late-1960's Concorde & Tu-144 prototypes.
    Slowburn
    re; OuldBill Yep they went right through the most difficult phase of high speed flight and took her back to the barn for an inspection. This is prototype testing, not a speed and altitude exhibition.
    Zappenfusen
    Realizing it was a Piloted rocket makes it all the more outstanding and hearkens to the realization that the thing might actually work. Branson has put his money to good use. I was unaware of how far Virgin had progressed in this endeavor. Perhaps a lottery allowing a few poor people to participate is in order to democratize space flight. I myself would invest in as many tickets as I could afford as I'm sure many others would. Barring that perhaps a Kickstarter campaign is in order. I shall invest in a video camera immediately!