Virgin Galactic's Spacecraft Goes Supersonic in First Rocket Test

Virgin Galactic's promise of space tourism creep closer with a rocket-powered flight test

2 min read
Virgin Galactic's Spacecraft Goes Supersonic in First Rocket Test

A supersonic flight test for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo marked a big milestone in the company's efforts to make suborbital space tourism into a reality. The spacecraft tested its rocket in midair for the first time on April 29—a critical step toward the goal of launching commercial operations in 2014.

The 16-second rocket burn propelled SpaceShipTwo to a speed of about 1.2 times the speed of sound and an altitude of 17 000 meters, according to the Wall Street Journal. That first rocket-powered flight aims to pave the way for commercial space tourism flights that would give paying passengers the experience of traveling at a maximum speed of about 4000 kilometers per hour hour (Mach 3) and reaching an altitude of 97 kilometers above the Earth.

Success seems to have given a big boost to both Virgin Galactic and its billionaire founder Sir Richard Branson after years of delays. Virgin Galactic has continually pushed back its timetable for the start of commercial spaceflight operations based out of Spaceport America in New Mexico—the original timetable of 2008 slipped to 2010 and then 2012.

But Branson sounded confident about Virgin Galactic's next steps during an interview with Fox News.

It was the biggest milestone in this program, and it’s taken us eight and a half years to get there. Now we know it can break the sound barrier safely. Now we can start testing at 2 000 miles an hour, 3000 miles an hour, 4000 miles an hourand then by the end of the year, be ready to do flights into space.

"Flights into space" really means suborbital flights to the edge of space. That's because the space industry typically refers to an altitude of 100 kilometers as the boundary line. But even the brief experience of microgravity near the edge of space could provide new opportunities for doing science on cheaper space tourism flights.

The recent Virgin Galactic test flight involved two pilots sitting at the controls of SpaceShipTwo—designed by aerospace company Scaled Composites—as its mothership WhiteKnightTwo took off from California's Mojave Air and Spaceport with SpaceShipTwo slung under its belly. WhiteKnightTwo eventually released the spacecraft for the rocket-powered test after climbing to an altitude of about 14 000 meters.

That midair test of the hybrid rocket motor came during the spacecraft's 26th flight test. Virgin Galactic  launched glide test flights on 3 April and 12 April as a prelude to the powered flight test.

The latest success may bring higher prices for Virgin Galactic space tourists. Branson told that the US $200 000 seat price for flights would be going up to $250 000 in about a week. And they'll stay that high at least until the first 1000 people had traveled.

Photo: Mark Greenberg/AP Photo

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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