vir­gin galac­tic: count­down to launch

Australian T3 - - OPIN­ION -

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…

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