There were 15 flight tests of eight suborbital boosters in 2018, including six flights of two vehicles — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard — that are designed to carry passengers on space tourism rides.
The race to provide launch services to the booming small satellite industry also resulted in nine flight tests of six more conventional boosters to test technologies for orbital systems. Two of the boosters tested are designed to serve the suborbital market as well.
A pair of Chinese startups took advantage of a loosening of government restrictions on launch providers to fly their rockets two times apiece. There was also suborbital flight tests of American, Japanese and South Korean rockets.
Throughout the Space Age, suborbital flight has been the least exciting segment of the launch market. Operating in the shadow of their much larger orbital cousins, sounding rockets carrying scientific instruments, microgravity experiments and technology demonstrations have flown to the fringes of space with little fanfare or media attention.
The suborbital sector has become much more dynamic in recent years now that billionaires have started spending money in it. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic both made significant progress last year in testing New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo, respectively. Their achievements have raised the real possibility of suborbital space tourism flights in 2019. (I know. Promises, promises…. But, this year they might finally really do it. I think.)
Stratolaunch continued high-speed taxi tests at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on Wednesday. The company tweeted that the aircraft reached a speed of 136 mph (219 kph or 60.8 m/s) and lifted the front landing gear off runway 12-30.
Word in Mojave has it that taxi and flight tests have been delayed over the past month due to weather. If the aircraft had to divert from Mojave, it would land on the lake bed at nearby Edwards Air Force Base. The lake bed has been soaked by rain.
Mojave, California, USA, 13 Dec 2018 (Virgin Galactic PR): History has been made and a long-anticipated dream realised in Mojave, CA, today as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, landed from her maiden spaceflight to cheers from Richard Branson and the teams from Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company.
Not only is this the first human spaceflight to be launched from American soil since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011, but the very first time that a crewed vehicle built for commercial, passenger service, has reached space.
MOJAVE, Calif. (NASA PR) — A winged spacecraft will soon take off with four NASA-supported technology experiments onboard. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo will separate from the WhiteKnightTwo twin-fuselage carrier aircraft and continue its rocket-powered test flight.
MOJAVE, Calif. (Virgin Galactic PR) — Our SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, is entering the next stage of testing. During this phase of the flight program we will be expanding the envelope for altitude, air speed, loads, and thermal heating. We also plan to burn the rocket motor for durations which will see our pilots and spaceship reach space for the first time. Although this could happen as soon as Thursday morning, the nature of flight test means that it may take us a little longer to get to that milestone. It has taken years of design and manufacturing work by The Spaceship Company to get to this exciting stage and has required testing of all the parts and subsystems that make up SpaceShipTwo. (more…)
Virgin Galactic announced today that it would attempt the fourth flight of SpaceShipTwo Unity as early as Thursday morning from the Mojave Air and Space Port. The launch window runs through Saturday, Dec. 15.
“We plan to burn the rocket motor for longer than we ever have in flight before, but not to its full duration,” the company said in a statement that indicated the vehicle could reach a “space altitude.”
A full duration burn of Unity’s hybrid rubber-nitrous oxide engine would take approximately 60 seconds. This week’s flight will likely include a pilot and co-pilot but no passengers.
During its most recent flight test on July 26, Unity fired its hybrid engine for 42 seconds and reached an altitude of 32.3 miles (170,800 ft/52 km). It was the longest engine burn and highest flight in the program’s 14-year history.
By space altitude, Richard Branson’s space company apparently means the 50-mile (264,000 ft/80.4 km) boundary set by the U.S. Air Force for awarding astronaut wings to X-15 pilots in the 1960’s.
The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which is the world governing body for air sports, sets the boundary of space at 100 km (62.1 miles/328,084 ft) . FAI recently announced it was exploring whether to lower the boundary to 80 km.
The 4.5-month long gap in powered flights is the longest for Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo. The previous three tests came at roughly 2-month intervals.
Sources in Mojave say engineers have been grappling with several issues since July. The most serious one is a crack that was discovered in one of SpaceShipTwo’s major structural components. It’s not clear how the problem was addressed.
It looks as if things could get very busy here at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the coming weeks with a possible pair of historic milestone flights.
Sir Richard Branson has said he expects SpaceShipTwo Unity to make a flight into space before Christmas, which is just over two weeks away. Sources say a flight is highly likely barring technical or weather delays.
Parabolic Arc has also heard that Stratolaunch could attempt the historic first flight of its massive carrier aircraft before the new year. (more…)
In promoting an upcoming flight test of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo that is intended to reach space, Richard Branson has set up a straw man as a critic that he will gleefully knock down should the vehicle lands safely back on Runway 12-30 in Mojave later this month.
“I obviously would love to prove our critics wrong, and I’m reasonably confident that before Christmas, we will do so,” he told CNN’s Rachel Crane in a video interview.
Richard Branson is ramping up the hype again for his human spaceflight program.
CNN is here at the Mojave Air and Space Port today, doing live reports from Virgin Galactic’s FAITH facility, where the company builds and preps SpaceShipTwo and its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, for flights.
And Branson is predicting SpaceShipTwo will fly to some definition of space by Christmas. That means they will drop the vehicle and light the engine for roughly 1 minute for the first time in an effort to reach at least 50 miles (80.46 km/264,000 ft) in altitude.
We’ve all heard this before, of course. Branson was publicizing the hell out of SpaceShipTwo back in fall 2014, predicting he would be in space on the first commercial flight within months. Then they would start flying more than 700 people who signed up. (CNN says the number is now down to about 600.)
Then SpaceShipTwo Enterprise crashed during a flight test on Oct. 31, 2014, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury. It took Virgin Galactic about three years to get back to the same point in the flight test program with the second vehicle, Unity.
It was the second major setback for the program. In 2007 — the year Branson predicted commercial service would begin — three engineers were killed in a test stand explosion. Redesigning the nitrous oxide tank they were testing took years.
After more than a decade of delays and two fatal accidents, another space mogul might let the pilots fly the vehicle and hype the results afterward. But, that’s not the way Branson rolls. So, CNN is here today to preview the flight.
Branson is hyping an actual planned test this time. Barring any problems in the weeks ahead, we will see a flight before Dec. 21. At that point, everyone will take off for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, and the spaceport will become virtually a ghost town.
Virgin Galactic Chief Pilot David Mackay and test pilot Mark Stucky have flown the previous powered flights. I’m guessing they’ll be in the cockpit again this time for the program’s most challenging and dangerous test to date.
SpaceShipTwo Unity last flew four months ago. During its third powered flight on July 26, the vehicle reached 170,800 ft. (52 km/32.3 miles) and Mach 2.47 after firing its engine for 42 seconds.
Since the last flight test, engineers have been wrestling with several unidentified problems that were discovered on SpaceShipTwo.
LONDON (LifeStart PR) — The LifeStart platform is partnering with Virgin Galactic Unite to challenge students on how they could help raise awareness of the benefits of space exploration to life on earth. Prizes include mentoring and a trip to the spaceport in California.