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Virgin Galactic s WhiteKnightTwo carrying SpaceShipTwo. Credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo carrying SpaceShipTwo. Credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic

FAA grants Virgin Galactic launch permit for powered test flights

Sen— Virgin Galactic has been granted an experimental launch permit from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that will allow it to proceed with rocket powered test flights of its sub-orbital spacecraft.

The FAA, which is responsible for licensing US spaceflights for both cargo and astronauts, granted the license at the end of May.

Virgin Galactic President and CEO said “This important milestone enables our team to progress to the rocket-powered phase of test flight, bringing us a major step closer to bringing our customers to space. We thank the FAA for their timely issuance of this permit, and for their responsible oversight of the test program.”

Virgin Galactic's spacecraft consists of a mothership known as "WhiteKnightTwo" and a rocket-powered spacecraft called "SpaceShipTwo". WhiteKnightTwo will take off like an aeroplane and carry SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of about 50,000 feet before releasing the spacecraft. After release, SpaceShipTwo’s rocket will be ignited and propel the craft, carrying 2 professional astronauts and 6 paying passengers, to an altitude north of 100km (62 miles, 360,000 feet) thereby qualifying as a spaceflight in accordance with the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale's 100km definition of space.

Testing of the three components of the Virgin Galactic spaceflight system - the mothership, the spaceship and the rocket motor - have been progressing for some time now. The FAA permit will enable Virgin Galactic to combine all the components and carry out full rocket-powered test flights.

WhiteKnightTwo, which began test flights in 2008, has completed most of its test program having had over 80 flights to date.

SpaceShipTwo, whose testing began with captive carry flights (carried by the mothership WhiteKnightTwo) has had 16 free flights including 3 that tested the craft's feathering re-entry system. A ground taxi test was carried out on June 1 followed by another captive carry flight.

The hybrid rocket motor has completed 11 test firings including full duration burns. The hybrid rocket propulsion being used is provided by Sierra Nevada Corporation, a company which is developing its own Dream Chaser spacecraft with the assistance of NASA's Commercial Crew Development Program.

The rocket motor will shortly be fitted to SpaceShipTwo for aerodynamic test flights with the full weight of the propulsion system, followed by a full flight test later in the year under the FAA permit.

SpaceShipTwo is based on the Ansari X PRIZE winning spacecraft, SpaceShipOne. Also licensed by the FAA, SpaceShipOne achieved two flights to sub-orbital space - reaching 102.9km - within a two week period in 2004. Sir Richard Branson saw the opportunity to commercialise the technology and formed a joint venture, The Spaceship Company, with Scaled Composites, the inventor and manufacturer of the prize winning spacecraft.

Virgin Galactic's spacecraft, based on the design and technology of SpaceShipOne, consists of a launch craft (mothership) known as "WhiteKnightTwo" and a rocket ship "SpaceShipTwo". SpaceShipTwo is attached to the mothership which will take off horizontally and attain an altitude of about 50,000 feet before releasing SpaceShipTwo. SpaceShipTwo’s rocket will then be ignited and propel the craft, carrying 2 professional astronauts and 6 paying passengers, to an altitude of about 100km (62 miles, 360,000 feet) thereby qualifying as a space flight in accordance with the definition of space of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale being 100km.

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