by Douglas Messier
Virgin Galactic (VG) is seeking a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use its WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft for more than occasionally dropping SpaceShipTwo out of the sky.
“VG and [The Spaceship Company] have been approached by potential customers, including NASA, NOAA, and certain defense contractors inquiring about supporting the testing of payloads and carrying onboard experiments, which are not related to the original purpose of the WK2 aircraft,” the company said in a letter to the FAA.
“A specific example would be to carry an atmospheric sensor and collect data through various altitudes from the surface up to 45,000 feet above mean sea level (MSL) and possibly as high as 53,000 feet MSL,” the document added.
WhiteKnightTwo is an experimental aircraft that is prohibited from carrying persons or property for compensation. It’s main use is to drop the SpaceShipTwo suborbital space plane at altitude.
Virgin Galactic said WhiteKnightTwo has accumulated 284 flights and 617 flight hours.
The 12-year old aircraft was built for Virgin Galactic by Scaled Composites. WhiteKnightTwo was rolled out in late July 2008, with its first flight coming five months later in December.
Virgin Galactic said WhiteKnightTwo has capabilities that make it ideal for a variety of scientific and technical uses.
“Specifically, WK2’s ability to reach altitudes in excess of 50,000 ft, a payload capacity of approximately 30,000 pounds, and its ability to fly at low speeds at a stable altitude, make it an excellent platform for science, research, and national security applications,” the letter said.
“In addition, WK2 provides an excellent high altitude, stable platform for validation of unique cutting-edge technologies for earth sensing. The WK2 aircraft can also climb quickly and fly at high altitudes that provide the capability to perform onboard research and development activities,” the document added.