Virgin Galactic has promised to make it to space in 2014, following a successful third supersonic flight of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital rocketplane.
The 10 January test flight, from Virgin's Mojave development centre, saw SpaceShipTwo drop-launched from 46,000ft (14,000m) before a 20s rocket motor burn pushed it to Mach 1.4 and 71,000ft – its highest altitude to date.
Although avoiding recent promises to begin commercial operations, Virgin Galactic owner Sir Richard Branson says: “2014 will be the year when we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space."
Virgin Galactic’s operational plan is to take passengers paying a fare of some $250,000 just beyond the defined edge of space, at 100km (62 miles). Flying from its purpose-built spaceport in New Mexico, the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo will be carried to release altitude by its dedicated, twin-fuselage carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo before release – a mission plan modelled on NASA’s 1950s X-15 rocketplane.
SpaceShipTwo will achieve maximum altitude by expending its rocket fuel, reaching space as it glides over the top of a ballistic path before dropping back into the atmosphere, giving occupants approximately 6min of microgravity and spectacular views of Earth. The company has some 600 "astronauts" signed up to fly, some of whom have already paid the full fare.
For re-entry and early descent, SpaceShipTwo’s tail surfaces pivot upward to act as air brakes, in what has been likened to a shuttlecock configuration. Then, returning to normal launch configuration, it becomes a glider for runway landing.
On board for the 10 January flight were Virgin Galactic's chief pilot Dave Mackay and Mark Stucky – his counterpart at Scaled Composites, which built both SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. The flight tested the spaceship’s reaction control system and the newly installed thermal protection coating on the vehicle’s tail booms. All of the test objectives were successfully completed, Virgin Galactic says.