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 hour—and 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 SPACE.com 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
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.