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Virgin Galactic's feathered spaceship flexes its wings

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Apr 9, 2013, 23:00 UTC

Sen—With another successful glide test under its belt, all eyes are on Virgin Galactic's next major milestone: turning the engines on to power its suborbital spaceship.

SpaceShipTwo soared over the Mojave Desert last week in another glide test, breaking free of its carrier spacecraft WhiteKnightTwo and touching down safely after running some tests in the air.

Among them was another test of the spaceship's "feathers", which are rudders that turn up to 90 degrees during the re-entry to increase the drag and add control to the spacecraft.

"We’re happy to report that all of yesterday’s test objectives were successfully met," Virgin Galactic stated.

"This was her 24th glide flight and the 6th in-flight test of her patented feathered re-entry system," it added. "The flight test team also successfully verified SS2’s nitrous loading and venting system, another key milestone on the way to our first powered flight."

The technology was an early entrant in the suborbital space race. A predecessor spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, was the first privately funded spacecraft to achieve spaceflight twice in a two week period. The feat earned Scaled Composites, the manufacturer of that spacecraft, the Ansari X PRIZE in 2004.

Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson was so impressed by Scaled Composite's technology that he announced he would accept space tourists even before SpaceShipOne won the prize. Since then, more than 530 people have put down their reservations for tickets. One of the more notable confirmations is the actor Ashton Kutcher. 

An inaugural flight date has not yet been announced, but it is expected to come sometime within the next couple of years. The spacecraft can seat six tourists and two professional astronauts.

Virgin is now part of a growing number of private companies seeking to bring people into space. One of them, SpaceX, is already an experienced hand at bringing cargo to the International Space Station. The Dragon spacecraft has made several ferry flights to orbit and eventually, the company hopes to modify the ship to carry humans as well.

Additionally, Boeing plans to fly the CST-100 spacecraft in the coming years. Both NASA and Bigelow Aerospace plan to make use of the spaceship for their own flights. Recently, Boeing finished a preliminary design review of a section that is intended to bolt the capsule to the rocket.

For its part, Bigelow received authorization earlier this year to proceed with an inflatable extension for the International Space Station to further test the performance of inflatable structures in space.

Astrium, a subsidiary of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), has a space plane planned for suborbital flights. EADS has done flights in other fields of space, notably with its Ariane cargo rocket and also the Columbus module on the International Space Station.

XCOR's Lynx spacecraft, which can carry one passenger and a pilot, is aggressively selling tourism packages in several countries through third party tour companies. Recently, the company expanded to Canada through two high-end Canadian tour groups. 

Other companies that are working on spacecraft or rockets include Blue Origin, Orbital Sciences Corp. and SpaceDev.