Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Feathers its Wings in Drop Test

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GOLDEN, Colo. — Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spaceplane SpaceShipTwo soared through the California sky April 3 in an unpowered flight test meant to pave the way for future passenger trips to space.

SpaceShipTwo was released at high altitude from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft and glided to a runway landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port. The successful drop moves the craft closer to its first hot-engine flight using its hybrid rocket motor.

Bill Deaver, veteran Mojave Air and Space Port tarmac watcher, said SpaceShipTwo glided to its landing at 8:40 a.m. local time.

“The flight followed the usual pattern with the drop and glide preceded by a fuel dump from the spaceship,” Deaver said. “The weather was perfect and the wind was blowing out of the east, which meant that when the spaceship slid to a stop on its landing gear and wooden nose skid, the handful of spectators got a whiff of burnt wood.”

Virgin Galactic Chief Executive George Whitesides said the test flight included a demonstration of SpaceShipTwo’s ability to “feather” its tail section, rotating the tail up to a 65-degree angle from the ship’s body. The safety feature is designed to increase the drag force on the vehicle as it flies through the atmosphere on its return from the edge of space.

“We also tested components of the rocket motor system,” Whitesides said. “The team executed very well throughout and brought us another important step closer to first powered flight.”

SpaceShipTwo’s Rocket Motor 2 underwent its 27th full-scale, flight design hot-fire test March 30, with “all objectives completed,” according to a statement from the spacecraft’s builder, Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites.

The first piloted free flight of SpaceShipTwo took place Oct. 10, 2010, at Mojave Air and Space Port. The extensive test shakeouts of the spaceplane and its engine are in preparation for taking paying passengers to the edge of space, with commercial flights slated to start from New Mexico’s Spaceport America.

The passenger ticket price for a SpaceShipTwo suborbital trek is $200,000. Virgin Galactic has taken deposits from more than 500 paying passengers. Flights are slated to begin in 2014.