For the first time in more than two years, a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo has been unclipped from its carrier.
The VSS Unity glided for 10 minutes under its own control, after being released from WhiteKnightTwo, after a previous four “captive carry” test flights.
Virgin Galactic says the Saturday flight over the Mojave desert was the first of many glides the craft will undergo to gather “real world” data.
The VSS Unity was released from its carrier at just over 15,000 metres (50,000 feet), and it hit Mach 0.6 (which Virgin Galactic notes is a very gentle velocity) in the ten-minute test, before making its glide landing at just after 10:40 US Eastern Time on September 3.
As Spacenews notes, the glide flight was originally scheduled for November 1, but that test was delayed due to high winds. On November 3, unspecified technical issues prevented the craft from separating from WhiteKnightTwo.
Virgin Galactic is taking things very carefully since the October 2014 break-up of VSS Unity's predecessor in a rocket-powered test. The crash left one pilot dead and a second seriously injured.
An investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), manufacturer Scaled Composites, Butler Parachutes, and Virgin Galactic concluded in July 2015.
It found that co-pilot Michael Albury prematurely unlocked the “shuttlecock” tail booms – aerodynamic brakes – nine seconds after the rocket motors ignited. The FAA said the accident was caused by a combination of human error and a lack of safety training. ®