Virgin Galactic Completes First-Phase Rocket Tests

Virgin Galactic Completes First-Phase Rocket Tests
Virgin Galactic completed the first phase of tests of SpaceShipTwo's rocket motor that will propel space tourists, scientists and payloads into space. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

Thespace tourism firm Virgin Galactic has successfully test-fired the rocket motordesigned to boost a passenger spaceliner on suborbital joy rides into space.

Thehybridrocket motor would launch Virgin Galactic?s SpaceShipTwospacecraft into suborbital space at speeds of over 2,500 mph (4,000 kph) tosend ticket-carrying passengers soaring to heights of 65 miles (110 km) abovethe Earth.

Thislatest series of tests in the California desert follows flight tests forSpaceShipTwo's carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, dubbed "Eve." The Evemother ship ended up with a slightding on its tail in April during what was then its longest test run yet.

"SpaceShipTwo,which will air launch from Eve, is largely constructed and awaiting the startof its own test flight program later this year," said Sir Richard Branson,the British billionaire founder of Virgin Galactic.  

SpaceShipTwois designed to carry eight people — six passengers and two pilots — intosuborbital space and back for about $200,000 a ticket

Unliketypical rockets, SpaceShipTwo would ride into the upperatmosphere under Eve's wing before igniting its own rocket engine to makethe final ascent into space. That means the rocket motor only needs to burn fora short time period.

"Thismeans much less fuel is required — fuel which provides none of the toxins thatare present in the solid rockets used by the space shuttle and satellitelaunches," Branson noted.

Headded that the spaceship's carbon footprint for each of its passengers and crewwould be just a quarter of that for a return trip from London to New York.

Thehybrid nitrous oxide motor represents the largest of its kind in the world,designed by Virgin Galactic supplier Scaled Composites and its subcontractorSNC (Sierra Nevada Corporation). Safety features include the capability to shutdown the system at any time, and permit the spaceship to glide back down for aconventional runway landing.

VirginGalactic has already lined up $40million and 300 people on its waiting lists for space tourism flights.They'll have to keep waiting for now, as flight testing for SpaceShipTwo isscheduled for later this year.

SpaceShipTwois being built for Virgin Galactic by aerospace veteran Burt Rutan and his firmScaled Composites in Mojave, Calif. Rutan and his firm, with backing frommillionaire Paul Allen, designed SpaceShipOne, an air-launched spacecraft thatwon the $10 million Ansari X Prize for piloted suborbital spaceflight.

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