SpaceShipTwo Conducts Third Gliding Flight Test

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Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo on Nov. 17 was released from its WhiteKnightTwo mothership high above the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, marking the suborbital spacecraft’s third successful gliding flight test in just over a month.

SpaceShipTwo was piloted by Pete Siebold and Clint Nichols.

According to a test log posted by Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites — builder of the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo launch system — a series of flight objectives were successfully met following clean release of the craft at altitude.

“Yesterday’s flight included opening up a much larger portion of the previous envelope, this time using water ballast to achieve an aft center of gravity,” said Scaled’s chief technical officer Burt Rutan, the veteran aerospace designer who founded the company in 1982.

“The ship dumped the water directly over the field, giving an impression that it was making thrust with the large plume,” Rutan said in an interview.

For its latest glide flight, SpaceShip-Two was flown to a more aggressive stall indication.

During the glide, the craft’s stability and control also were evaluated. The third shakeout of SpaceShipTwo followed the Oct. 10 and Oct. 28 glide flights.

Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, said more SpaceShipTwo glide tests are in the offing. Those flights will include a high-altitude drop of the craft that will allow the pilots to test SpaceShipTwo’s novel tail section, which greatly reduces aerodynamic and thermal loads during atmospheric re-entry.

These tests will be followed by attachment of the spaceplane’s hybrid rocket motor.

“There will be short firings of the motor, and then we’ll extend those burns and we’ll start climbing into space,” Whitehorn said. “I think we can pretty safely say now that we’ll be in space in 2011. It’s taken a little bit longer. But the point is that it has been done safely.”

The SpaceShipTwo vehicles Scaled Composites is building are designed to carry six ticket-holding passengers and two pilots. Suborbital treks are selling at $200,000 a seat, with over 340 individuals signed up for flights to the edge of space.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, ceremonies at the Mojave Air and Space Port marked the start of construction of a new facility to build a fleet of SpaceShipTwos and WhiteKnightTwos for Virgin Galactic.

On Nov. 9, The Spaceship Co. (TSC) broke ground for its new final assembly, integration and test hangar.

TSC is a new aerospace production company, a joint venture between Virgin Group and Scaled Composites, a subsidiary of Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp.

When completed, the new building will serve as TSC’s operating headquarters and be used primarily for the final assembly, integration and testing of TSC’s vehicles before they enter service.

The building is sized to support the production of two WhiteKnightTwos and at least two SpaceShipTwos in parallel.