Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2) broke its own speed and altitude records on Thursday as it successfully completed its second rocket-powered, supersonic flight. At 8:00 AM PDT, SS2 took off slung beneath the WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft from Virgin Galactic’s Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California. According to the company, the tourism spacecraft went through its full technical mission profile in a single flight for the first time, including the deployment of its “feathering” re-entry mechanism at high altitude.

SS2 was released from the carrier at 46,000 ft (14,000 m) and the rocket motor burned for 20 seconds, pushing the spacecraft to an altitude of 69,000 ft (21,000 m) and a maximum speed of Mach 1.43 (946 knots, 1,088 mph, 1,752 km/h). After engine shutdown, the pilot deployed the feathering system, where the tail section is rotated to vertical and the ship’s descent is slowed using the same principle as a shuttle cock. The craft landed in a controlled, unpowered glide at Mojave at 9:25 AM.

“We couldn't be more delighted to have another major supersonic milestone under our belts as we move toward a 2014 start of commercial service,” said Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson. “It was particularly thrilling to see for the first time today the whole elegant system in action during a single flight, including the remarkable feathering re-entry system. It was this safety feature more than anything else that originally persuaded us that the overall design of the system was uniquely fit for purpose. Everything we have seen today just confirms that view.”

Thursday’s flight builds on the success of the first rocket-powered supersonic flight of SS2 on April 29. The distinctive twin-fuselage WK2 that ferried it is the largest carbon composite carrier craft in service, and was piloted by Virgin Galactic Chief Pilot Dave Mackay and Scaled Composites (Scaled) co-pilot Mike Alsbury with Spaceship Company Flight Test Engineer Scott Glaser. SS2 was piloted by Mark Stucky and Clint Nichols, both of Scaled.

Like the WK2, the SS2 is a 100 percent carbon composite construct and it’s about the size of a Falcon 900 executive jet, though much roomier inside because it doesn't have an interior deck. It’s powered by a hybrid rocket motor that uses solid rocket fuel and nitrous oxide as an oxidizer. The gas oxidizer means that, unlike conventional solid rocket motors, it can be shut down at will.

SS2 is designed to take six paying passengers on a suborbital flight into space beginning next year, where they can look back at Earth and enjoy several minutes of zero gravity. According the Virgin Galactic, it can also be fitted with equipment racks to carry experiments and the technology can also be adapted to launch micro-satellites into low Earth orbit.

Both SS2 and WK2 were developed for and operated by Virgin Galactic, which is jointly owned by Sir Richard’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s aabar Investments PJS.

The video below is a tail’s eye view of the test flight

Source: Virgin Galactic