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SpaceShipTwo crashes during powered test flight

Virgin Galactic confirms the Scaled Composites SpaceShipTwo suborbital rocket crashed on 31 October during the first powered test flight in nearly 10 months.

The start-up suborbital tourism company was unable to immediately confirm reports that the crash killed one of the two test pilots onboard the aircraft.

If confirmed, the fatality would be the first death linked to the programme since an explosion during a 2007 ground test of SpaceShipTwo’s propellent killed three Scaled Composites workers.

“Our first concern is the status of the pilots, which is unknown at this time,” the company says. “We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates as soon as we are able to do so.”

The powered flight was intended to launch the final phase of testing following a nearly 10-month pause while Scaled Composites switched to a new propellant. A rubber-based material was replaced with thermoplastic polyamide as the solid fuel.

Although it seemed that commercial suborbital launches were imminent before the failed test, the Virgin galactic programme had been delayed already by several years.

The 8.23m (27ft)-wingspan SpaceShipTwo succeeded the experimental SpaceShipOne prototype. The latter was retired after completing a record-breaking three flights into space in 2004, allowing designer Burt Rutan to claim the Ansari X-Prize and seemingly ushering in a new era of privately financed suborbital spaceflight.

It is powered by a hybrid rocket motor generating between 50,000 to 80,000lb-thrust. It is carried under the WhiteKnightTwo vehicle up to 50,000ft and released.

The 31 October flight represented the 35th time that SpaceShipTwo was released by WhiteKnightTwo. The aircraft glided to an unpowered landing at Mojave Air and Space Port during all but four of the 35 releases from WhiteKnightTwo. This was the fourth powered test, in which the hybrid rocket motor ignites and propels SpaceShipTwo into the upper atmosphere.

But something happened within seconds of the ignition launch sequence, according to statement by the US Federal Aviation Administration. FAA controllers at Mojave lost radar contact with the vehicle shortly after separating from WhiteKnightTwo. Minutes later, Virgin Galactic tweeted that SpaceShipTwo had “experienced an inflight anomaly”. WhiteKnightTwo then landed safely at Mojave.

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