May 29, 2009 Your dream of taking a ride into space just took a big step forward with Virgin Galactic announcing the completion of phase one testing on the rocket motor that will propel SpaceShipTwo into suborbital space. The Virgin Galactic project to provide sub-orbital spaceflights to the paying public will also act as a stepping stone to the company’s plans for future orbital flights and will almost certainly lead to a dramatic decrease in long haul international flight times – a couple of hours from Sydney to London anyone?

The innovative rocket motor uses the largest hybrid Nitrous Oxide system of its kind in the world to achieve speeds over 2,500 mph (4,000 kmh) and send amateur astronauts to heights over 65 miles (110km) above the Earth’s surface. Virgin points out that, although the rocket motor is extremely powerful, it is also completely controllable – a nice attribute to have when you’re when traveling at over Mach 4.

Since the SpaceShipTwo will be launched from the Virgin MotherShip Eve (VMS Eve) in the upper atmosphere, the rocket also boasts a low environmental impact when compared to the current solid rockets used in most ground-based systems. This is due to the reduction in fuel needed for a mid air launch, and the fuel burn is more environmentally benign.

“The spaceship’s carbon footprint for each of its passengers and crew will be about a quarter of that for a return trip from London to New York, demonstrating again the extraordinary benefits that new technology can bring to the quest for clean transportation," says Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson.

As previously reported, the VMS Eve carrier aircraft has been undergoing testing since December with Virgin reporting the all carbon composite, high altitude WhiteKnightTwo launch vehicle is “flying superbly”. The rocket motor will continue a series of exhaustive tests, while SpaceShipTwo, which is largely constructed, will begin flight testing later this year.

Earthly benefits

Virgin Galactic is not only aiming to provide space tourists with a safe, (relatively) cheap and environmentally sound way to get into space. It also anticipates commercial spaceflight will be used for a range of scientific purposes and to send small satellites into orbit.

Although the first space tourists will be shelling out a pretty penny (read US$200,000) for the right to be one of the first to take a commercial trip into space, they may also be funding the next generation of high-speed international flights. Space programs have always provided a range of side benefits, (contrary to popular belief Tang, Teflon and Velcro weren’t the result of the space program, however WD-40 and metallized plastic were), and the development of an economically viable suborbital spaceflight that drastically cuts international flight times is a very major spin-off that Virgin Galactic is no doubt aware of.

Darren Quick