Virgin Galactic Suddenly Very Chatty About Engine Progress

Newton engine (Credi: Virgin Galactic)
Newton engine (Credi: Virgin Galactic)

The exclusive, multi-platform partnership that Virgin Galactic has forged with NBCUniversal has begun to bear fruit over the past two months. The media giant has signed on to chronicle Sir Richard Branson’s flight aboard SpaceShipTwo and all the events leading up to it.

In November, Sir Richard Branson phoned into CNBC from his Necker Island retreat in the Caribbean to announce that Virgin Galactic would begin accepting the virtual currency Bitcoin for SpaceShipTwo reservations.

A month later, NBC News got into the act, with Science Editor Alan Boyle and a film crew trekking out to Mojave for a powered flight of SpaceShipTwo. They went away disappointed when the test was scrubbed due to a rare patch of bad weather in the High Desert.

But, no matter. Boyle has been giving Virgin Galactic blanket coverage ever since, in a manner reminiscent of the Life Magazine coverage of the American space program during the 1960’s. Life forged a similar exclusive arrangement with NASA and its early astronauts.

Boyle’s latest article is an in-depth look at Virgin’s development of its Newton engines, which will power the company’s LauncherOne small satellite rocket. Aside from giving too much credence to Virgin Galactic’s far-in-the-future plans for point-to-point passenger service, it’s a well-written story chock full of interesting details. And that’s precisely what makes the piece so very strange.

You want details? Oh, Boyle’s got details. The Virgin folks were quite chatty. How many Newton engines are under development? Three. How many have been tested? Two. How many rounds of testing have been conducted? Dozens. What do the engines burn? RP-1 kerosene and supercooled liquid oxygen. How much thrust does the NewtonOne engine produce? 3,500 pounds. And the first stage NewtonTwo?  47,500 pounds. And how long will that burn? Two and a half minutes.

So, what’s so unusual about all this? Nothing. These are precisely the sort of details that most companies will happily release about their rocket engines. Providing, of course, that development is going well. And therein lies the rub.

While Virgin Galactic is free with specifics about a small, unmanned rocket that won’t fly until 2016, it has not been very forthcoming about the RocketMotorTwo engine it plans to use later this year on SpaceShipTwo to fly Branson and his family on a suborbital joy ride.

How much thrust will RocketMotorTwo produce? How long will it actually burn? What will it burn, rubber or nylon? How high can it propel SpaceShipTwo?

All very good questions — with few answers. Virgin Galactic has been very reluctant to describe the capabilities of the most important engine in the entire program, the motor upon which the company’s fate depends.

Boyle’s story adds little to our understanding of it. He discusses RocketMotorTwo briefly, but in the place of specifics we get a curious and carefully worded email response from Virgin Galactic Vice President for Special Projects William Pomerantz.

“We and our contractors at Scaled Composites and Sierra Nevada are continuing to develop ways to improve the motor design by making them easier to manufacture and install, or by further improving their handling characteristics and performance,” Pomerantz wrote.

Translation: we’re still working on it. But, we’d be happy to tell you more about these Newton engines. They’re pretty awesome, huh?

The truth is that nearly a decade into the SpaceShipTwo program, RocketMotorTwo remains a work in progress even as Branson has been running around the world telling everyone that his flight to space is mere months away.

SpaceShipTwo has flown three times under power using nitrous oxide-rubber engines that have fired 16, 20 and 20 seconds apiece. Although it appears the slow progress is based on a desire to carefully expand SpaceShipTwo’s flight envelope, the reality behind the scenes is different.

Sources tell me that is probably as far as they can go with that version of the hybrid engine. If it was fired longer, the oscillations the engine produces would increase to the point where they would be bad for the pilots, passengers and ultimately the ship.

Efforts to dampen out the oscillations on the nitrous-rubber engine are continuing, sources say. Engineers also are working on alternative engines that could replace it. An engine that uses nitrous oxide and nylon was tested in Mojave two weeks ago. That test reportedly went very well.

Nitrous nylon engine test on Jan. 16, 2014. (Credit: Ken Brown)
Nitrous nylon engine test on Jan. 16, 2014. (Credit: Ken Brown)

How well any of these approaches will work is uncertain at this point. Nor is it clear how long they might take to implement. Much additional testing and work lies ahead before engineers will have clear answers.

If the engineers are successful, there is a good chance that SpaceShipTwo could reach some definition of space this year. It’s not clear whether the ship will reach the international standard of 100 km (62.1 miles) that Virgin Galactic has promised its 700 customers, or the 50-miles (80.47-km) standard the U.S. Air Force used for X-15 pilots in the 1960’s. The lower limit would probably be sufficient for Virgin Galactic to say it has reached space.

If they fail to find a solution, the SpaceShipTwo program and the company itself could be in real trouble. The months ahead will be crucial to determining the future of this nearly decade-old venture. It will be interesting to watch.