Credit: Virgin Galactic

 

A major step forward is being declared by Virgin Galactic today as SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity safely and successfully completed its first supersonic, rocket-powered flight.

The flight came after two years of extensive ground and atmospheric testing.

The passing of this milestone, Virgin Galactic adds, marks the start of the final portion of Unity’s flight test program.

Practicing liftoff of commercial space travel, Virgin Galactic visionary, Richard Branson.
Credit: Jack Brockway

Clean release

VSS Unity took off this morning into clear Mojave skies at 8:02 am with Mark “Forger” Stucky and Dave Mackay in the cockpit, attached to the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, piloted today by Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile.

“The mated vehicles climbed to a launch altitude of around 46,500 feet over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and while pointing back at Mojave, Eve executed a clean release of Unity,” Virgin Galactic noted in a press statement.

“After a few seconds, Unity’s rocket motor was brought to life and the pilots aimed the spaceship upwards into an 80 degree climb, accelerating to Mach 1.87 during the 30 seconds of rocket burn. The hybrid (nitrous oxide / HTPB compound) rocket motor, which was designed, built and tested by The Spaceship Company, powered Unity today through the transonic range and into supersonic flight for the first time.”

Virgin Spaceship Unity is unveiled in Mojave, California February 19th, 2016. VSS Unity is the first vehicle to be manufactured by The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic’s wholly owned manufacturing arm, and is the second vehicle of its design ever constructed. VSS Unity was unveiled in FAITH (Final Assembly Integration Test Hangar), the Mojave-based home of manufacturing and testing for Virgin Galactic’s human space flight program.
Credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic

Feathered flight

On rocket shutdown, Unity continued an upwards coast to an apogee of 84,271 feet before readying for the downhill return.

At that point the SpaceShipTwo pilots raised the vehicle’s tail booms to a 60 degree angle to the fuselage, into the “feathered” configuration. “This unique design feature, which is key to a reliable and repeatable re-entry capability for a winged vehicle, incorporates the additional safety mechanisms adopted after the 2014 VSS Enterprise test flight accident,” Virgin Galactic reports. That powered flight led to a destructive breakup of the vehicle, killing one of the two pilots on Oct. 31, 2014.

Virgin Galactic pilot Todd Ericson and NTSB investigators at SpaceShipTwo accident site.
Credit: NTSB

At around 50,000 feet,  the tail-booms were lowered again and, while jettisoning the remaining oxidizer, Unity turned towards Mojave for the glide home and a smooth runway landing.

Explains Virgin Galactic: “The flight has generated valuable data on flight, motor and vehicle performance which our engineers will be reviewing.”

Today’s flight also marks a key moment for the test flight program, entering now the phase of powered flight and the expansion to full duration rocket burns.

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