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SpaceShipTwo sets new altitude, speed record


September 6, 2013

SpaceShipTwo broke the altitude and speed record that it set in April

SpaceShipTwo broke the altitude and speed record that it set in April

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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

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

Fabulous technology.

Just a slight cautionary note. Once we thought that there was unlimited oil and happily burnt it until we now worry about no more oil.

We have a finite atmosphere and sure a little bit can be wasted for joy flights to space, how many joy flights though?

Nick Hill

Nice, but nothing compared to the North American X-15.

Cees Timmerman

Very cool.

Marcus Carr

Hi David, i read with pleasure your subjects but this time i felt the need to complement your text.

Guess when talking about this project one mustn't avoid to mention Burt Rutan, it's enough to google it and you will find out what i'm talking about.

Richard Branson and the Abu Dhabi cash are the booster stage that allowed the project to take off.



@ Cees Timmerman - The what? How many civilians have been up into space (or are planned to do so) in that, then?

Comparing what Sir Dicky (Richard Branson) is trying to achieve with the X15 is completely daft. The X15 program cost millions (billions probably) of tax payers money and all it did was go jolly fast. VG is bringing 'affordable' space tourism for the masses and is funded totally privately.

Martin Winlow

Legendary equipment, designed and built by the legends of composite aircraft. You have to take your hat off to Burt Rutan. What a genius.


I completely agree with nulo's comment. Without Burt Rutan, everything about this endeavor is a non-starter. That doesn't take away from the involvement of Sir Richard, his money and his willingness to back Rutan's vision, but its still Burt Rutan's company and vision that makes White Night and Space Ship Two a reality.

Not mentioning Burt Rutan in the article is like discussing the development of the Wright Flyer and not mentioning Wilbur Wright or Charlie Taylor. I think Orville would have issues with the omission much the same, I suspect, as Sir Richard would.

Simons Engineering

@MartinWinlow - The X-15 was a research program that tested the aerodynamics of spaceplanes and the thermal effects of controlled re-entery. The research from the X-15 and the Lifting Body program are what was the foundation for the Space Shuttle design and engineering. Additionally, this tourist adventure is a suborbital flight that probably won't go above Mach-4, the thermal dynamics of re-entry would melt the skin of the VG spaceplane if it went above that speed; having dead tourists is bad for business. There's a lot more to engineering spacecraft that sending a few tourists into space for a minute or two. Respect the research that's paved the road for these types of ventures. When the private sector is able to create orbital vehicles that can safely launch and land, traveling at speeds of 17000 miles per hour, then that will be impressive! It takes billions to build orbital spacecraft that can operate safely, so treat spaceflight and programs like the X-15 with respect; I guarantee the men that built the VG spacecraft do!

David Zaffery

Just think, they have almost achieved what the Concorde did 20+ years ago.


I was referring to the misleading headline; it's only a record for the SpaceShipTwo, while still testing.

I'm glad that SpaceShipOne flight 17P finally managed to beat the X-15 in altitude. Both of those only had one pilot and two 100+ km (current space threshold) peaks.

Cees Timmerman

This video http://youtu.be/Vh7HOu5-o10 is more interesting and has more information about the flight I think

Yury Nekhaevskiy
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