Virgin Galactic has moved one step closer to actual spaceflight with its second supersonic flight of its passenger carrying SpaceShipTwo.
The test flight was a key milestone in the firm's attempt to become the world's first commercial space liner, flying (wealthy) tourists for brief journeys into suborbital space.
The company's carrier aircraft, which gets the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) into position, carried the rocket-powered craft to an altitude of 46,000 feet before letting go. SS2 pilots Mark Stucky and Clint Nichols of Scaled Composites then burned the rocket motor for 20 seconds to get the ship to 69,000 feet, during which it topped out at a maximum speed of Mach 1.43.
During the test, the craft also deployed its twin tail sections to the "feathered" position, a feature that's designed to slow the ship's descent and get it safely touched down back on Earth. The idea behind the design is to reduce wear and tear on the SS2 so it can eventually make several trips a day into space.
“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." ®