virgin galactic: countdown to launch
The first manned flight of SpaceShip Two, Virgin Galactic’s winged space plane built by aerospace pioneer Scaled Composites, is set to launch this year. Yes, we’ve heard it before, but this time Branson means business, claiming he’ll be placing himself and his family aboard and pointing it at the heavens.
SpaceShip Two will be carried to an altitude of 15,200 metres by a carrier plane known as WhiteKnightTwo. There, it will detach and activate its throttleable hybrid engine, powered by nitrous oxide and hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (that’s a kind of rubber). This will allow it to accelerate from 0-400km/h in eight seconds, before reaching an altitude of 110 kilometres – about ten kilometres above the Karman line that separates the atmosphere and space in international law.
The in-flight menu has yet to be decided, but the six passengers who will have paid US$250,000 each for the trip will be able to update Facebook, bouncing their new zerogravity profile pictures off of the Moon to get data back to Earth.
When it’s time to return to terra firma the craft folds its wings up and re-enters the atmosphere, slowed like a shuttlecock to keep temperatures down during re-entry.
Eventually, at a height of 24 kilometres, the wings fold out again and the craft glides majestically back to its Norman Foster-designed spaceport in New Mexico. Well, that’s the plan. However, the craft has not yet reached its target altitude successfully – during tests, the maximum height achieved has been 21,000 metres. To get its license, SpaceShipTwo needs to complete several full-speed test flights above 100 kilometres. The clock’s ticking, Commander Branson…