Why it matters to you
After multiple test flights, Virgin Galactic’s latest endeavor shows that rocket-powered flights are not too far off in the future.
It wasn’t so long ago that we were celebrating Virgin Galactic’s return to the skies after a two-year hiatus. And now, just over a year later, the company has conducted its sixth test glide with the VSS Unity. While we celebrated Virgin Galactic’s first couple test runs last December, this latest achievement is notable because it was a dry run for real rocket-powered flights. It carried propulsion components onboard, as well as 1,000 pounds of water to mimic the weight of fuel casing.
“Our major first today though was that with the exception of the rocket motor fuel grain, called the CTN (Case-Throat-Nozzle), we flew with all the spaceship’s principle propulsion components on-board and live,” Virgin Galactic announced. “This meant that Unity took off with her forward pressurant tank loaded with helium and for the first time, her centrally positioned Main Oxidizer Tank fully charged with nitrous oxide.”
The test is said to have gone “smoothly,” as Unity’s mothership, Eve, took both aircraft past 40,000 feet to the drop point. “After a clean separation from Eve and an approach-to-stall test, Unity’s tail-booms were raised into their re-entry position for the second time in flight,” Virgin Galactic noted. “Once back into the normal glide configuration, the pilots used the descent to execute the remaining test points, including a high-g pull-up maneuver and bank-to-bank rolls.”
Test flights in late 2016 certainly set the stage for an ambitious 2017, and already, Virgin Galactic has made good on its promise to run more tests. Last October, company president Mike Moses noted that Virgin Galactic would continue testing until it had completed all its test objectives, which could be done in approximately 10 flights.
“We’ll start slow,” Moses said in October of these yet-to-occur flights. At first, the SpaceShipTwo will only be accelerated to Mach 1 (it hasn’t hit that first sound barrier yet). “Once that’s under our belts, we’ll punch through to full duration, expand the envelope, and look at all the off-nominal conditions that can occur,” Moses concluded.
It’s yet to be determined when Virgin Galactic’s glider could begin commercial flights, but that certainly hasn’t stopped space enthusiasts from paying for a ticket beyond Earth’s atmosphere once SpaceShipTwo is ready to go. In fact, Virgin Galactic says, it has about 700 customers who have already signed up to be passengers. Who knows? Maybe you’ll want to join them.
Update: Virgin Galactic has conducted a successful dry run of a rocket-powered flight.