SpaceShipTwo Powered Flight No. 3: A Photo Essay

Pre-sunrise checks on WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo on the runway at the Mojave Air and Spaceport. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Pre-sunrise checks on WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo on the runway at the Mojave Air and Spaceport. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Here’s a photo essay of the SpaceShipTwo’s third powered flight, which took place on Friday. The suborbital spacecraft fired its engine for 20 seconds, reaching a speed of Mach 1.4 and an altitude of 71,000 feet.

Fueling of the ship takes place in the early morning hours, and then the vehicle taxis out to the runway in the pre-dawn darkness for a series of checks by the pilots and ground crew.

Virgin Galactic Chief Test Pilot David Mackay. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Virgin Galactic Chief Test Pilot David Mackay after an earlier test flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

On this occasion, Virgin Galactic Chief Pilot David Mackay made his first powered flight in SpaceShipTwo with Scaled Composites test pilot Mark Stucky as co-pilot. Virgin Galactic pilot Mike Masucci and Scaled Composites test pilot Mike Alsbury were at the controls of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

WhiteKnightTwo with SpaceShipTwo attached underneath it just after takeoff. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
WhiteKnightTwo with SpaceShipTwo attached underneath just after takeoff. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Masucci and Alsbury rolled WhiteKnightTwo down the runway and took off at 7:22 a.m. PST. In keeping with standard test procedures, the aircraft did not take off until after sunrise, which had occurred 21 minutes earlier.

After takeoff, there isn’t much for people to do on the ground but wait. It usually takes about 45 minutes to an hour for WhiteKnightTwo to reach the drop altitude of about 46,000 feet. Just prior to dropping the spacecraft, WhiteKnightTwo emits twin vapor trails that allow ground observers to better track it.

Over the scanner comes the final countdown. “5…4…3…2…1…”

SpaceShipTwo is dropped over Koehn Lake. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo is dropped over Koehn Lake. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

SpaceShipTwo drops in a sparsely populated area about 20 to 30 miles north of the Mojave Spaceport. In the pictures, the southern Sierra Nevada mountains are at the bottom, the mostly dry Koehn Lake is to the upper left, and a test track formerly used by Honda Motors is seen in the upper right.

SpaceShipTwo ignites its engines on the third powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo ignites its engines on the third powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Looking back as SpaceShipTwo's rocket engine fires during the third powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Looking back as SpaceShipTwo’s rocket engine fires during the third powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

For the first two powered flights, I and my photographer friend Ken Brown had watched from the Mojave, which is quite a distance away. This time, Ken found a spot for us on a mountain that overlooks Koehn Lake to be closer to the action. It was very remote. First there were paved roads, then dirt roads with ruts in the them, then even dirtier roads with hills and even bigger ruts in them.

SpaceShipTwo flies under power for the third time. (Credit: Ken Brown)
SpaceShipTwo flies under power for the third time. (Credit: Ken Brown)

It was an adventure. And Ken got some great pictures using his telephoto lens. He’s a really talented photographer.

SpaceShipTwo lights its engine as WhiteKnightTwo flies overhead. (Credit: Ken Brown)
SpaceShipTwo lights its engine as WhiteKnightTwo flies overhead. (Credit: Ken Brown)

So are the guys over at MarsScientific, who teamed up with the Clay Center Observator to get this photo of the powered flight.

SpaceShipTwo fires its engine on third powered test flight.
SpaceShipTwo fires its engine on third powered test flight.

The mountain was a very cool place to view the flight. It was utterly silent up there, with just me and Ken standing there and probably nobody else within miles. We watched the powered flight intently, snapping away with our cameras. The engine burned out as SpaceShipTwo soared upward.

“That was pretty short,” I said. “How long do you think it burned for? Maybe twenty–”

Just then, the roar of the engine rolled over us. Ken began counting. “1…2…3…4…”

He got to 27 seconds, but it seems he was counting too quickly. The actual burn was 20 seconds, the same as on the last SpaceShipTwo powered flight in September.

SpaceShipTwo at 71,000 feet over the Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo at 71,000 feet over the Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Mackay and Stucky tested the SpaceShipTwo’s feather re-entry system, RCS maneuvering system and new thermal protection system on the tail booms during the flight. They soared to 71,000 feet, some 2,000 feet above the previous record altitude, and viewed the curvature of the Earth on the horizon.

  • therealdmt

    Cool stuff. Basically, it looks like they’re in space already. Amazing to think that U-2 pilots get the same view every flight (and SR-71 pilots flew even higher).

  • Has the full duration firing test of 70+ seconds been done on the ground yet?

    Bob Clark

  • joy kirkwood

    Phenominal!!! Though very disappointed that rocket only burned for 20 secs. At this rate they wont make 100km to karmin line this year! Or perhaps 20 secs was enough for them to do the required testing as they have acheived full duration burn on ground. Lets hope so!!!

  • Jeroen

    Does someone happen to know why the nozzle is not axis symmetric ?

  • Hemingway

    Excellent photo essay!

  • Hug Doug

    yes. it provides an upward “push” without using the control surfaces on the SS2. like vectored thrust, except it’s built into the engine bell itself. in other words, even if the pilot doesn’t touch the controls, it will nose up on its own.

  • Jeroen

    That makes sense. Thank you for your clarification

  • Hug Doug

    i thought it was bizarre the first time i noticed it, as well. i’m not aware of anyone else doing anything similar on a rocket engine of this size. it’s unconventional, but it makes sense and it will work.

  • larryj8

    Flight test is an incremental process of gradually increasing speed and altitude to validate the design envelope. I suspect they’ll perform a series of gradually longer burns, perhaps increasing by 5 seconds each time, until they get to full duration. You’re likely to encounter fewer surprises that way and it’s more survivable than simply going for it. Surprises at very high speed tend to have unfortunate results.
    Back in the early X-15 days, the intended engine wasn’t available for the initial powered flights so they used two of the engines like those on the X-1. Scott Crossfield (first man to exceed Mach 2) had left NACA to work for Rockwell. He made several of the early X-15 flights. When the new engine (IIRC, ~50,000 pounds of thrust verses ~12,000 in the earlier configuration) was available, Crossfield made the first flight. He was prohibited from exceeding Mach 3. So, there he was in a fully fueled airplane capable of exceeding Mach 5. What did he do? He complied with the limits imposed on him. He was a highly skilled and very professional test pilot. I doubt simply going for it ever entered his mind. He knew they needed to gradually increase the X-15’s envelope before attempting to reach maximum speeds.

  • Douglas Messier

    They released a video late last month of a hot fire that lasted 56 seconds. They described it as a “full duration” burn.

  • joy kirkwood

    Thats what I was expecting at least a 5 min longer burn each time until they reach full duration as they did with spaceshipone. but going from a 20 second burn to another 20 sec burn is not performing a series of longer burns, as mentioned by george whitesides. obviously makes sense to not go straight into a full burn for safety reasons and as we must remember that ultimately public will b flying and not just test pilots so safer the better even if test period lasts longer. But still left me feeling disappointed. It seemed as if we were promised more excitement and a slightly longer burn each time.

  • larryj8

    We don’t know what they’re finding with each test. If they encountered problems on their previous 20 second burn flight, then they needed time to address those problems and another 20 second flight to verify that the fixes worked. For example, they added some sort of reflective material on the tail booms. That was probably in response to boom temps being too high under power. They did a glide test to confirm that the fixes didn’t introduce new problems and then repeated the powered flight.
    Fly-diagnose-fix-refly until the bugs are worked out at one set of test points and proceed when ready to the next set of test points. There may have been other fixes that they made as well. For example, a recent video taken during the second powered flight showed a pretty rough ride. VG and Scaled might’ve wanted to reduce those oscillations before attempting to go any faster. Since VG is a private company, they aren’t required to tell us about test issues.

  • Nickolai

    The engine bells on the Dragon’s Draco engines are also not axisymmetric, although I think that’s probably more because they want the exit plane flush with the outer mold line for re-entry aerodynamics reasons. It’s also a much smaller engine.

  • Nickolai

    Since the nozzle shape, obviously, doesn’t change throughout flight, wouldn’t this keep rotating the ship? Do the pilots have to apply a downward force with the control surfaces/RCS to keep SS2 from flipping over and spinning like crazy?

  • Hug Doug

    please explain why you think it would be flipping and spinning like crazy

  • Hug Doug

    quite right. i did say that i had never seen it done on this scale. smaller thrusters on the shuttle were also non-axissymmetric and flush with the surface.

  • Nickolai

    Like you said, if it’s not corrected, the plane will continue to pitch over until it’s upside down and then keep going. It probably wouldn’t go crazy, the pitch rate would likely be constant barring corrections.

  • Robert Gishubl

    Good news they have achieved a longer burn on the ground as for a long time they seamed to be stuck at about 20 seconds reviewing burn geometry.
    I am a but confused with the 56 second vs 70 second full duration burn but it may be the test engine has higher thrust or the payload has reduced to allow a shorter burn time than earlier mention.

  • Chad Overton

    I think the 20 sec burn makes sense at this point. They wanted to make sure Kapton heat shielding works.

  • Hug Doug

    it would pitch up, but not “like crazy,” nor would it spin.

  • Aerospike

    I guess it is designed in a way, that the sum of pitchup during the whole burn brings SS2 on exactly the desired flight path (starting from level flight). Since the engine can’t provide thrust longer than intended for the flight, how could excess rotation ever happen?