Flawless First Flight For SpaceShipTwo


LOS ANGELES — Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic are reviewing data from the first free-flight of the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) space vehicle, which took place in perfect weather conditions at Mojave, Calif., early in the morning on Sunday.

The 60-ft.-long, 42-ft.-wingspan SS2 was released from the WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) mothership at an altitude of 46,000 ft. and made a successful glide landing at the desert airfield some 13 min. later. The vehicle, which will seat up to six, plus two crew for suborbital flights, was flown by Scaled test pilot Pete Siebold and co-pilot Mike Alsbury.

The flight also was used to test a ventral, belly-mounted speed brake, which was deployed to help slow SS2 on the landing roll out. Scaled Composites confirms this is a new design feature and was tested during the descent. Initial handling qualities assessments from the crew indicate SS2 is stable and “a great flying airplane.”

Commenting on the landing, Scaled founder Burt Rutan says: “Pete [Siebold] was able to just kiss the ground, and when you do that, and you’ve never flown the aircraft before and never landed it, what that tells you is that you have a phenomenally nice flying machine.”

Scaled says the SS2 test showed a “very positive and controllable release from the mothership at 46,000 feet.” The flight included slow speeds down to first stall indication and handling and stability evaluation through several maneuvers. The overall flight envelope was expanded to 322 KTAS and 2g. The speed brake also was deployed during the landing, which was “executed to the target aim point,” the company says.

The flight marks the start of the third phase in a seven-phase test program that is expected to culminate with the start of space tourism and science flights in 2012. The initial phases of ground testing began following the rollout of SS2 in December 2009, while captive-carriage flight testing was initiated in March 2010. Unpowered glide testing, which follows four captive-carriage flights to simulate SS2 approaches, will be used to refine the vehicle’s aerodynamics and low-speed handling qualities. For the Oct. 10 flight, Scaled Composites had a cover over the nozzle of the Sierra Nevada RM2 hybrid rocket, and tufts below the duct to visualize the local flowfield around the composite-skin nozzle section.

The fourth test phase, which will involve higher-speed subsonic flight with a short burst of power from the RM2, is expected to begin early in 2011. A fifth flight-test phase, using longer rocket burns, will open up the supersonic, higher-altitude corner of the SS2 flight envelope. Once cleared, SS2 will move into the sixth phase, which is centered on suborbital flights. Release altitudes for powered tests, including launches for suborbital flights, will be around 50,000 ft., some 4,000 ft. higher than the altitude of the Oct. 10 test release.

The seventh and final test period will involve extensive safety-of-flight and system robustness demonstrations for FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation approval. Earlier comments by Rutan suggest the latter phases could cover 50-100 flights before certification.


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