Virgin Galactic Fires SS2 Rocket Engine, Reaches New Milestone

Virgin Galactic Fires SS2 Rocket Engine, Reaches New Milestone

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2) fired its rocket engines in flight for the first time today, bringing the company a step closer to flying commercial passengers on suborbital space voyages.

Nine years ago, SpaceShipOne entered the history books by winning the Ansari X Prize as the first non-government piloted vehicle to reach an altitude of 100 kilometers — an internationally recognized altitude of where space begins (there is no legal definition), return to Earth, and repeat the feat within seven days.   The rocket powered vehicle is dropped from an aircraft called WhiteKnight and was developed by Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites in Mojave, CA in partnership with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. 

Sir Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group, licensed the technology to create a commercial venture called Virgin Galactic, which now includes Abu Dhabi’s aabar Investments PJC.   Suborbital flights on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo were expected to begin years ago.  Branson said today’s 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.”

In today’s test, the mother aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, carried SS2 to 47,000 feet, where it was released and the SS2 pilots, Mark Stucky and Mike Alsbury, fired the rocket engine.  The engine firing itself lasted for 16 seconds, allowing 10 minutes of rocket-powered flight during which SS2 broke the sound barrier, reaching Mach 1.2 and an altitude of 55,000 feet before returning to Earth for landing.  A video of the release and rocket firing is on YouTube. 

Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides said a “handful” of similar tests will be conducted before the first test flight to space.

Editor’s Note:  The original video that was posted on YouTube was replaced by a corrected one later in the day.  The link above is to the corrected video.

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