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Thursday May 5, 2011 1:03 pm

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo hits “feather” re-entry milestone

Posted by Andru Edwards Categories: Science, Transportation

spaceshiptwo feather

One of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic spaceships on Wednesday completed a re-entry technique known as a "feather" configuration for the first time.

The SpaceShipTwo (SS2), known as the VSS Enterprise, has now completed seven solo flights since its December 2009 debut, but Wednesday's was the first that successfully tested out this re-entry procedure.

Virgin Galatic is Branson's commerical spaceflight program, which plans to take the average (albeit wealthy) tourist into space in the next two years.

The VSS Enterprise took off from a California runway this morning at 6:43am Pacific time attached to the WhiteKnight (WK2) carrier aircraft, the VMS Eve. The spaceship was controlled by Pete Siebold and Clint Nichols, test pilots from Scaled Composites, which designed and build the spacecrafts. Mark Stucky, Brian Maisler, and Brandon Inks manned the VMS Eve.

It took 45 minutes to reach 51,500 feet, at which point the VSS Enterprise was released from the VMS Eve. The VSS Enterprise then established a "stable glide profile" before deploying the "feathered" configuration, Virgin Galactic said. That involved rotating the tail section of the vehicle up to a 65-degree angle to the fuselage. It stayed this way for about one minute and 15 seconds while descending, almost vertically, at about 15,500 feet per minute. It was slowed somewhat by the "powerful shuttlecock-like drag created by the raised tail section," Virgin Galactic said.

When it hit 35,500 feet, the pilots reverted to glide mode and executed a runway landing, about 11 minutes and five seconds after releasing from the VMS Eve.

"This morning's spectacular flight by VSS Enterprise was its third in 12 days, reinforcing the fast turnaround and frequent flight-rate potential of Virgin Galactic's new vehicles," George Whitesides, CEO and president of Virgin Galactic, said in a statement. "We have also shown this morning that the unique feathering re-entry mechanism, probably the single most important safety innovation within the whole system, works perfectly. This is yet another important milestone successfully passed for Virgin Galactic, and brings us ever closer to the start of commercial operations."

In February, Virgin Galactic signed a contract with Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to bring scientists into space as well as space tourists.

Branson, meanwhile, is not only interested in space. Last month, he said his DeepFlight Challenger submersible is capable of diving to 35,000 feet and will explore the deepest parts of the seas beginning this year.

This article, written by Chloe Albanesius, originally appeared on PCMag.com and is republished on Gear Live with the permission of Ziff Davis, Inc.

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