You’d be forgiven for thinking that Virgin Galactic had disappeared into a cloud of vapourware. Whilst they had managed to build, fly and drop test SpaceShipTwo over two years ago there really hadn’t been much more from them since. Sure if you were keen you could find out what they were up to but the majority of the time it was more of the same: dozens of drop tests under their belt with no firm indication of when the next envelope push was going to happen. Indeed the last time I wrote about them was over 2 years ago and every time I wrote a space article since then I’ve always checked up on them to see if anything had changed. Unfortunately nothing did but a couple weeks ago I heard a rumour that they might be doing their first powered test soon.
That rumour appears to have come true.
WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo launched around 8 hours ago and performed their routine ascent up to about 14KMs. Then they separated and shortly afterwards SpaceShipTwo ignited its N2O/Rubber hybrid motor for 16 seconds, propelling it 2.7KMs higher and seeing it reach speeds just over Mach 1. SpaceShipTwo then glided back down to earth for a successful landing, aptly demonstrating the scaled up motor from the original Ansari X-Prize winning craft was quite capable of accomplishing its required task. It’s one thing to read the the text however and another thing altogether to watch it happen:
It’s a huge step forward for Virgin Galactic as it serves as a solid verification of all the critical systems required in order to get the craft into space. Further testing will see the motor burn for longer and longer each time, pushing SpaceShipTwo ever closer to that goal of passing the Kármán line at 100KM above sea level. Virgin Galactic appears to be quite confident in the craft as they’re planning for a full space flight before the year is out which, if the motor is similarly built to SpaceShipOne’s, would see them ramp the burn time from the paltry 16 seconds we saw today to well over 90 seconds. Considering the rigorous amount of testing SpaceShipTwo has undergone prior to this I can’t see much that would stand in the way of achieving this goal.
Virgin Galactic is going to be the first step in commoditizing space access. Sure right now it’s not much more than a joy ride (although even short suborbital flights can have some good science done with them) but SpaceShipTwo is the first to market in private space travel for regular people and with so many others already throwing their hats in the ring I can’t imagine it’ll stay so expensive for long. I might not be able to afford a ticket yet but I don’t think I’ll be waiting too long for my chance at it and that makes me incredibly excited.
Congratulations Virgin Galactic and godspeed.