Flight Tests of Virgin Galactic’s New Space Plane Could Start Early Next Year

By George Dvorsky on at

Hard to believe, but it’s been one year since SpaceShipTwo disintegrated during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other. Undaunted by the tragedy, Virgin Galactic has been hard at work building the second version of the suborbital rocket plane: a slightly modified version that may finally usher in the era of space tourism.

Version two of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which is yet unnamed, is currently being constructed at a hangar in California’s Mojave desert. As company founder Richard Branson told Mashable, they should be unveiling a completed spacecraft sometime around February 2016, after which time “we go into flight tests”. It’s a solid sign that Virgin Galactic, just a year after the incident, is, in the words of Branson, “very much back on track”.

Indeed, things didn’t look good in the wake of the disaster. It wasn’t immediately obvious if Virgin would continue, or whether Richard Branson would weather the flurry of criticism, including allegations of hubris and recklessness. It also didn’t help that he tried to distance Virgin from Scaled Composites, who provided the test pilots. Clearly, the company is once again looking to the future and are hoping to put this incident behind it.

To prevent a similar accident from happening again, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composite designers are equipping the new space plane with a mechanism that will prevent the premature deployment of its braking feathers. Last year, VSS Enterprise broke-up during the ascent phase after co-pilot Michael Alsbury — who died in the accident — moved a lever in the cockpit to unlock the tail feathers too early in the flight, causing the ship to disintegrate. The new device should significantly mitigate the opportunity for pilot error.

In addition to this feature and a new seat design, the Galactic Team is continuing to refine the space plane’s rocket fuel mixture. The new rocket plane, which is the first to be built by Virgin subsidiary The Spaceship Company (TSC), will be test-piloted by Virgin Galactic pilots, rather than Scaled Composite pilots. Other than that, not much has changed.

“The airframe itself we think is sound, and the propulsion system is sound,” noted Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides at an ISPCS conference last month. “We required very few changes to the vehicle following our test flight accident.”

Flight Tests of Virgin Galactic’s New Space Plane Could Start Early Next YearArtist's impression of LaucherOne (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Work is also scaling-up on Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne programme, which is designed to deliver small satellites into orbit. Virgin is currently shopping for a new LauncherOne aircraft carrier, and it’s equipping the two-stage rocket with a bigger fuel tank. That should increase its load capacity from 120 kg to 200 kg. [Mashable | SpaceFlight Now]

Top image by Virgin Galactic