SpaceShipTwo Mothership Makes Fastest Test Flight
Virgin Galactic's mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, on a test flight from the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California.
Credit: Robert Scherer

A carrier aircraft for Virgin Galactic's commercial space launch system completed its longest and fastest test flight to date on Wednesday.

That marked the third flight for WhiteKnightTwo, which had its maiden test flight at the end of last year. The twin-fuselage aircraft flew for more than two and a half hours, reaching a maximum speed of 161 mph and an altitude of over 18,000 feet (3.4 mi).

WhiteKnightTwo is slated to carry SpaceShipTwo as part of a reusable spaceliner fleet designed by aerospace veteran Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites. The world's largest all-carbon-composite aircraft bears the name "Eve" in honor of the mother of Sir Richard Branson, British entrepreneur and founder of Virgin Galactic's suborbital space tourism business.

"Now the stratosphere is the limit as we will continually test Eve for the next few months up to her ceiling of above 50,000 feet," said Peter Siebold, test pilot for WhiteKnightTwo during its first three flights.

Siebold conducted many tests during WhiteKnightTwo's third flight that were meant to raise the bar on altitude and flight-duration, but also addressed technical issues including in-flight engine restarts and engine thrust asymmetry assessment.

The all-carbon composite aircraft has a U.S. coast-to-coast range, and is slated to support up to four daily space flights, night or day. It could also potentially launch an unmanned rocket capable of putting a satellite into low-Earth orbit.

Tourists would pay a price tag of $200,000 to get a brief ride into space (at least 62 miles above Earth's surface) on the two-pilot, six-passenger SpaceShipTwo. Virgin Galactic has previously stated its intent to conduct test flights with WhiteKnightTwo carrying SpaceShipTwo in the second half of 2009.

"I am looking forward to flying myself in Eve in the next few weeks before we attach SpaceShipTwo later in the year and begin test flights to space shortly afterwards!" Branson said.

  • Video - Space Tourism: Virgin Galactic Way - Part 1, Part 2
  • Video - SpaceShipTwo Revealed
  • Images - SpaceShipTwo Mothership Unveiled