Virgin Galactic's Next Spaceship Gets Its 'Feather' (Video)

The next member of Virgin Galactic's suborbital spaceship fleet is really starting to come together.

Technicians just installed the structure of the "feathering" re-entry system on the new SpaceShipTwo vehicle's wing, Virgin representatives announced on Sunday (Dec. 15). The spaceliner's weight will soon rest on its wheels for the first time, they added.

The six-passenger, two-pilot SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry people and payloads on brief trips to suborbital space. The spacecraft is ferried aloft by an airplane called WhiteKnightTwo and dropped at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters). SpaceShipTwo then turns on its rocket motor, blasting itself upward.

Related: How Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Works (Infographic)

People aboard will get to see the curvature of Earth against the blackness of space and experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Tickets to ride the craft currently sell for $250,000; more than 600 people have reserved a seat, according to Virgin representatives.

The feathering system comes into play when SpaceShipTwo is ready to come back down to Earth: Pilots extend the feather upward, changing the vehicle's orientation, and making it more stable during the re-entry process.

"This orientation creates high drag, which slows SpaceShipTwo down quickly while high in the atmosphere," Virgin representatives wrote in a statement yesterday. "This also allows the thermal loads generated from re-entering the atmosphere to spread evenly over the surface area of the vehicle rather than concentrating on a few small points."

The new SpaceShipTwo — which, as far as we know, does not yet have a name — is being assembled in Mojave, California, at the facilities of Virgin's manufacturing subsidiary, The Spaceship Company. Virgin Galactic's commercial operations will be based at Spaceport America, in southern New Mexico.

Virgin currently has one operational SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, which is in the late stages of the test campaign. Unity has already performed two spaceflights, and the vehicle's first passenger-carrying commercial flight is expected to take place next year. (Unity is the second SpaceShipTwo vehicle. The first, VSS Enterprise, was destroyed in October 2014 during a test-flight accident that killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury and wounded pilot Peter Siebold.)

The newly feathered SpaceShipTwo is one of two new vehicles currently being built by The Spaceship Company. Virgin envisions flying frequently out of Spaceport America in the relatively near future, using a fleet of SpaceShipTwo vehicles. Indeed, the company's hangar at the spaceport is big enough to simultaneously accommodate five SpaceShipTwo crafts and two WhiteKnightTwo planes, Virgin representatives have said.

"Completing this milestone is an important moment in the build of our next spaceship and signals that our fleet is starting to take shape," Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in the same statement, referring to the feather's installation. "We have specifically designed our space system with a fundamental focus on safety, customer experience and reusability and the feather mechanism is key to enabling how we do this."

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.