The Daily Mail reports Virgin Galactic Founder RichardBranson shed a bit of light on the most mysterious aspects of his space tourism project — the status of SpaceShipTwo’s engine:
Sir Richard added: ‘The next big step will be the rocket tests actually on the spacecraft itself. We’ve obviously have done thousands of rocket tests on the ground, the next big test is in the air. We’ll be doing gentle rocket tests in the air, ultimately culminating into taking the spaceship into space.”
Obviously. The Scaled Composites RocketMotorTwo Hot Fire Test Summaries page lists five full-scale firings of the engine through early August. There were three tests in April and May 2009, one on March 30 of this year, and then the fifth one on Aug. 11.
Branson is probably adding in the “many subscale hot-firings were performed at Scaled Composites, LLC between Jun 05 and April 09” as mentioned on the web page. Or there have been a whole lot of tests since August that haven’t been posted yet.
The status of the engine has been the subject of much speculation in the Mojave community, with some believing that Scaled Composites and Sierra Nevada Corporation are having trouble scaling up a hybrid engine originally designed for the small, X-1 sized SpaceShipOne vehicle for an 8-person successor that is the size of a business jet.
Branson said recently that he expects commercial operations to begin within 18 months, which will be preceded by additional SpaceShipTwo glide and powered flights as well as licensing by the Federal Aviation Administration. If that is an accurate estimate, that would indicate that officials believe the engine problems are behind them. It would be a very tight schedule if they were still uncertain of the propulsion system.
As always, time will tell…