Virgin Galactic Getting Closer to Powered Flight Tests

SpaceShipTwo glides to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides spoke at the 20th Mars Society Convention last week where he gave an update on his company’s effort to reach space.

Whitesides said the company has “a very small number” of glide tests remaining for SpaceShipTwo Unity before the vehicle begins powered flights. He did not give a timeline for when Virgin Galactic would light the motor in flight.

Unity has conducted six glide flights since last December. The most recent one was on Aug. 4.

Whitesides showed a video of hot fire of the spacecraft’s hybrid engine. He said engineers had completed testing on the engine, which he called the most advanced hybrid in the world.

Two additional SpaceShipTwo vehicles are under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port, he added. The cabin pieces of one of them were recently bonded together. The new vehicles will be ready for testing a year or two, Whitesides said.

Mojave Journal: Oh Boy, Virgin Orbit Now Gets to Test Rockets at Night

As a Mojave resident, I can’t say I’m real thrilled by this change. It’s noisy enough around here during the day, what with the airplanes, rocket tests, sonic booms from Edwards, freight trains, the highway that runs through the middle of town, and random explosions from God knows what. The town’s got enough problems; why add to them?

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Branson Envisions 20 SpaceShipTwos; Brian Cox’s Space Race Doc Prepares to Drop

Richard Branson and George Whitesides gave out at SpaceShipTwo after it came to a stop on Runway 12. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The Sunday Times of London has an update on Virgin Galactic that seems to be based around an upcoming Brian Cox documentary on space tourism, which is set to air early next month in Britain.

Branson could be first in the mass tourism market despite a disastrous 2014 test flight in which a pilot died. Unity is to start rocket tests this autumn, and two more craft are under construction.

“We are hoping to be into space by the end of the year,” said Branson, who has spent £450m on the project. “The cost has been a lot more than we thought . . . but we can see the price falling and we could have 20 spaceships operating so that . . . enormous numbers of people could go into space.”

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Gibson: Cancellation of ULA Contract Led to Recent XCOR Layoffs

John (Jay) Gibson

Former XCOR CEO Jay Gibson told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that the cancellation of an engine contract by United Launch Alliance led the struggling Mojave-based company to lay off its remaining employees last month.

“We were a subcontractor, and in the days of continuing resolutions we felt like we had a commitment from our prime” for funding that he said would last a year or more. “With less than 30 days notice, we were told that funding was terminated.”
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U.S. Air Force Secretary Visits Mojave, Tours Stratolaunch

If Stratolaunch only had a rocket worthy of the ginormous carrier aircraft they built. No offense to Orbital ATK and the Pegasus XL, but that’s not what this thing was built for. Maybe they will develop one eventually.

XCOR Lost ULA Engine Contract

Lynx engine hot fire. (Credit: XCOR)

Despite laying off its 21 remaining employees, XCOR Aerospace isn’t dead yet. But, it’s not in real good shape, either.

It turns out that a major blow to the company was the loss of a contract with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to develop an upper stage for the Vulcan booster.

The primary impetus for the layoffs, Acting CEO and XCOR Board member Michael Blum told me, is the loss of a contract for engine development that the company had with United Launch Alliance. “The proceeds should have been enough to fund the prototype of Lynx [the company’s planned spacecraft], but ULA decided they’re not going to continue funding the contract. So we find ourselves in a difficult financial situation where we need to raise money or find joint developments to continue.” ULA declined to comment.
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Mojave: The Once and Future Spaceport

Sunset from the Mojave Air and Space Port on Oct. 30, 2014. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

At some point in the next six months, the Mojave Air and Space Port could experience something that not happened here in 13 long years: an actual spaceflight.

Richard Branson is predicting that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity could reach space on a flight test from Mojave by December. For once, his prediction does not appear to be based on unrealistic hopes, the need to reassure customers about delays, or a complete misunderstanding of what is happening on the ground here.

In other words, it’s actually plausible. Whether it will happen on that schedule…that’s another question. Flight test is notoriously unpredictable and very tough on timetables.

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New Mexico’s Spending on Spaceport America Likely Not Over

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

After a decade of broken promises and delays, the next year could bring some very good news for New Mexico’s $225 million taxpayer-funded Spaceport America.

Anchor tenant Virgin Galactic’s lease payments are increasing. And Richard Branson’s prediction for the start of commercial spaceflights there in 2018 appear (for once) to be on the mark, barring major problems with SpaceShipTwo’s flight test program.

So, it would seem that at long last, New Mexico’s hard-pressed taxpayers will finally be off the hook for supporting the spaceport. Right?…I mean, right?

Not necessarily.

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Video of Virgin Orbit LauncherOne Engine Test

Video Caption: At Virgin Orbit, we test our rocket engines all the time. Here’s a video of a typical test, conducted at our facilities in Mojave, CA. In this video, we test throttling down our NewtonThree rocket engine–the single rocket engine that will power the main stage of our LauncherOne rocket.

Mojave Journal: Good Rockets are Hard to Find

Stratolaunch carrier aircraft rolled out of its hangar for the first time. (Credit: Stratolaunch)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Checking my messages on Wednesday at LAX after a long flight from back east, I was startled to learn that Paul Allen’s ginormous Stratolaunch aircraft had been rolled out of its hangar for the first time in Mojave while I was in transit.

I had been expecting some official roll-out ceremony later this year ala SpaceShipTwo where the press and public could get a good look at the twin fuselage, WhiteKnightTwo-on-steroids air-launch platform.

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Masten’s Xaero-B Damaged in Flight Test

Xaero-B in flight (Credit: Masten Space Systems)

Masten Space Systems’ Xaero-B test vehicle was damaged during a flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port last month. The company says it has no plans to repair it at this time.

A source who requested anonymity reports the crash occurred on April 19. The vehicle rose about five to 10 feet off its launch pad, began to pitched over and then fell to the desert floor, the source said.

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California Considers Tax on Launches Within the State

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the WorldView-4 spacecraft lifts off from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Credit: ULA)

California’s Franchise Tax Board is seeking public comment on a proposed new tax that would fall upon ULA, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and other companies launching spacecraft from within the state.

The levy would apply to companies “that generates more than 50 percent of its gross receipts from the provision of space transportation activity for compensation in a taxable year,” the proposal states. Space is defined as 62 statute miles (100 km) or more above Earth.
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SpaceShipTwo Flight Test Scheduled for this Morning

SpaceShipTwo glides through the Mojave sky followed by an Extra chase plane. (Credit; Ken Brown)

Word has it that Virgin Galactic has scheduled the fourth glide flight of SpaceShipTwo Unity this morning in Mojave. The test will be the first for Richard Branson’s suborbital space plane in more than two months.

Cell service permitting,  I will be providing coverage of the test at www.twitter.com/spacecom

On the test card for today is deployment of the new spaceship’s redesigned feather system, which re-configures the ship when it returns from space. Unity will be hauled aloft to an altitude of about 50,000 feet by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft Eve.

The premature deployment of the feather system during powered ascent led to the destruction of the first SpaceShipTwo Enterprise during a flight test on Oct. 31, 2014. Scaled Composites pilot Mike Alsbury died in the accident. Virgin Galactic has added a mechanism to the feather system to prevent premature deployment of the feather.

The weather forecast looks good for the flight, with sunny skies and low surface wind speeds.

There’s a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) for the operation of an unmanned aerial system (UAS) at the spaceport from 6 a.m. to noon. It’s not clear who will be operating the system, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Virgin Galactic is aiming to capture video of the flight from the air.

The six-hour period for UAS operations overlaps with the likely window for a SpaceShipTwo flight test. So, it is unlikely that this is a coincidence.

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New Stratolaunch Photos Show World’s Largest Aircraft

Carrier aircraft cabin and wing (Credit: Stratolaunch)

Stratolaunch has revamped its website with some new photos of its gigantic carrier aircraft under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Carrier aircraft cabin (Credit: Stratolaunch)

The twin fuselage airplane will be the largest aircraft in the world, with a 385-foot wing span. Powered by six Boeing 747 engines, the aircraft will have a payload of more than 500,000 lbs. (226,796 kg) and an operational range of approximately 2,000 nautical miles (3,715 km).

Aircraft undercarriage (Credit: Stratolaunch)

The Stratolaunch aircraft is designed to air launch launch vehicles. The company has an agreement with Orbital ATK to use its Pegasus small-satellite booster.

Carrier aircraft with Pegasus boosters (Credit: Stratolaunch)

In March, billionaire backer Paul Allen has said he hopes the carrier aircraft will make its first flight test by the end of the year.

Carrier aircraft tail (Credit: Stratolaunch)

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