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Virgin Galactic spaceship has first rocket-powered flight

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Apr 30, 2013, 7:00 UTC

Sen—Virgin Galactic's suborbital space vehicle SpaceShipTwo had its first rocket-powered flight on April 29, going supersonic during its 16 second engine burn. The flight is an important step forward towards commercial operations.

The spaceline's founder, Sir Richard Branson, was on the ground at Mojave to witness the test flight. Branson said:  “The first powered flight of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was without any doubt, our single most important flight test to date. For the first time, we were able to prove the key components of the system, fully integrated and in flight. Today’s supersonic success opens the way for a rapid expansion of the spaceship’s powered flight envelope, with a very realistic goal of full space flight by the year’s end. We saw history in the making today and I couldn’t be more proud of everyone involved.”

Branson helped fuel speculation about the flight earlier in the day when he tweeted "Occasionally you have days that are ridiculously exciting. Today is such a day." The reason for his excitement soon became clear when he wrote on Twitter "Planning something truly momentous with @virgingalactic today - watch this space".

The flight launched from the Mojave Air and Space Port at 7.02 am local time. After reaching an altitude of 47,000 feet the mothership released SpaceShipTwo. The rocket was then ignited, with the main oxidizer valve opening and igniters firing the fuel case. The rocket burn lasted 16 seconds, as planned, sufficient to propel the spacecraft, called Enterprise, to supersonic speed, reaching Mach 1.2. Click here to watch a video of the rocket burn.

The rocket powered test flight time was just over 10 minutes, after which Enterprise landed on the runway at Mojave at about 8 am local time. 

Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides, who was also present at Mojave, said: “The rocket motor ignition went as planned, with the expected burn duration, good engine performance and solid vehicle handling qualities throughout. The successful outcome of this test marks a pivotal point for our program. We will now embark on a handful of similar powered flight tests, and then make our first test flight to space.”

The flight was not a full test run to space, with SpaceShipTwo achieving a maximum altitude of 55,000 feet. SpaceShipTwo was piloted Dave Mackay, Clint Nicols and Brian Maisler.

The company is aiming for a full powered test flight to space before the end of 2013.

The test programme began back in 2008 with flights of the mothership named Eve after Branson's mother. SpaceShipTwo has also had a number of test 'glide' flights without its rocket motor fitted. A separate test program has also been running for the rocket motor.

The rocket engine was recently fitted to SpaceShipTwo and a "cold flow" test flight - everything except igniting the rocket - took place on April 12, 2013.  

About 550 future passengers have signed up with Virgin Galactic. These space tourists, dubbed "future astronauts" by Virgin, have been eagerly awaiting powered test flights.

Virgin Galactic's suborbital vehicle consists of a mothership, known as WhiteKnightTwo, and a rocket ship called SpaceShipTwo. SpaceShipTwo, which will be operated by two professional pilots, has been designed to carry six passengers. The ride will begin with SpaceShipTwo attached to the mothership, which takes off from a runway like an aeroplane and carries the rocket ship to about 50,000 feet. SpaceShipTwo will then detach itself from its carrier and the rocket will be ignited, accelerating the vehicle to a speed of about 2,500 mph. Its destination will be an altitude of about 110 km (65 miles, 360,000 feet) thereby qualifying as a space flight in accordance with the rules of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, an international standards and record keeping organisation for aeronautics and astronautics. This 100 km boundary is known as the Kármán Line.