Virgin Galactic expects to resume flight tests of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle as early as June from manufacturer Scaled Composites' facility in Mojave, California.
"We'll have some drop tests over the summer, I think in July, maybe June. We'll have to see how it goes, but basically over [the third quarter] we'll have a lot of drop tests," says Virgin Galactic. "[Those tests] will have some of the new equipment but mostly that will just be continuing through the aerodynamic, subsonic flight test regime."
SpaceShipTwo has not flown since its 16th glide flight in September, 2011, when it entered a tail stall upon release from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. The onboard crew recovered control of the aircraft and landed without further incident.
Installation of engine components has begun on the suborbital spacecraft. The vehicle uses a Sierra Nevada-built hybrid rocket, RocketMotorTwo, fueled by nitrous oxide and hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB, a form of rubber).
"The guys at Scaled have started to do the beginnings of the plumbing and the fittings and things like thatwe've started to integrate certain components. We haven't put the rocket motor casing itself in."
Powered flights using the fully integrated engine are planned for the end of 2012, with a flight into space shortly thereafter. Virgin hopes to begin flying tourists into suborbital space for a few minutes of weightlessness by the end of 2013.
Around 515 people have put down deposits for a ride, says Virgin. The company has recently opened its first sales office in South Africa.
SpaceShipTwo is a substantial redesign of SpaceShipOne, which in June 2004 became the first private craft to formally cross into outer space.