Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Ignites Engine, Thunders Through Sound Barrier

Photo Credit: MarsScientific.com / Clay Center Observatory

Photo Credit: MarsScientific.com / Clay Center Observatory

Virgin Galactic activated SpaceShipTwo’s (SS2) rocket motor for the first time in flight Monday morning, sending the space plane supersonic and paving the way for customers to fly into space.

The Las Cruces, N.M.-based company conducted the first powered test flight of the private space plane at approximately 7:50 a.m. PT, April 29, 2013. The test flight was the next step in a series of methodical tests to prove the viability of both the SS2 and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo.

As the duo reached an altitude of about 47,000 feet, SpaceShipTwo was released. After being freed from WhiteKnightTwo, the test pilots onboard SS2, Mark Stucky and Mike Alsbury, ignited the engine for about 17 seconds—once they were sure they were clear of the carrier aircraft. After this in-air test was complete, they then piloted the craft back to a safe landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port. All total, the flight lasted about 10 minutes.

Photo Credit: Bill Deaver/Deaver-Wiggins and Associates

Photo Credit: Bill Deaver/Deaver-Wiggins and Associates

The difference between today’s and earlier test flights is that all prior flights of SS2 were unpowered glide tests. They were designed to simulate the space plane’s returning and landing capabilities. The engine, which burns using a combination of a solid fuel and nitrous oxide, until today, had not been ignited on SS2.

“The rocket motor ignition went as planned, with the expected burn duration, good engine performance, and solid vehicle handling qualities throughout,” said Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides. “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.”

It is hoped that this and subsequent tests will allow SpaceShipTwo to fly into the “black sky” sometime next year.

Among the witnesses to today’s powered test flight was Sir Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, of which Virgin Galactic is a holding.

“It is a tremendous achievement and a testament to the hard work and meticulous preparation by everyone involved,” said Richard Branson, the Virgin Group’s founder, in a post on his blog. “Like our hundreds of customers from around the world, my children and I cannot wait to get on board this fantastic vehicle for our own trip to space and am delighted that today’s milestone brings that day much closer.”

Virgin Galactic plans to use the SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo craft to allow customers—each of whom have purchased a $200,000 ticket—the chance to experience a few moments of weightlessness and see Earth as few others have before.

Photo Credit: Virgin

Photo Credit: Virgin

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