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Virgin Galactic rocket goes supersonic in test flight

3:22 PM, Sep 5, 2013   |    comments
  • Virgin Galactic's SpaceshipTwo fires its engines during a test flight on Thu., Sep. 5, 2013. ( Center Observatory/NBC News)
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(NBC) -- Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, the vehicle most likely to become the world's first truly commercial spaceship, fired its engines in flight for the second time ever on Thursday.

Following up on its first powered flight in April, the craft went supersonic once more -and tested its wing-tilting re-entry system for the first time, Virgin Galactic said in a series of Twitter updates.

The company said the flight test "hit our planned duration, altitude and speed." The hybrid rocket engine was fired for 20 seconds, sending SpaceShipTwo to a maximum velocity more than 1.4 times the speed of sound and a maximum altitude of 69,000 feet (21 kilometers),Virgin Galactic reported. That compares with 16 seconds, a top speed of Mach 1.2 and a maximum altitude of 56,200 feet for April's flight.

Pilots Mark Stucky and Clint Nichols were at the controls during Thursday's test.

The flight followed the basic scenario for Virgin Galactic's future passenger trips to space: A twin-fuselage carrier airplane, known as WhiteKnightTwo, made a conventional takeoff from California's Mojave Air and Space Port. SpaceShipTwo was tucked beneath WhiteKnightTwo's 141-foot-wide (43-meter-wide) wings, and dropped into the air at an altitude in excess of 40,000 feet.

The rocket plane's hybrid engine was then lit up to power the plane even higher. After coasting to the top of its arc, SpaceShipTwo angled its wings into a "feathered" shuttlecock configuration to slow down its descent, then righted the wings again for a runway landing.

In addition to its two powered flights, SpaceShipTwo has made 27 gliding descents without lighting up the engine. Mojave-based Scaled Composites' test program calls for a series of increasingly ambitious powered flights, leading up to trips that take the plane beyond the internationally accepted boundary of outer space: 100 kilometers, or 62 miles. Depending on how the tests go, SpaceShipTwo - also known as VSS Enterprise - could begin taking commercial passengers into outer space within a year.

British billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic's founder, has said he and his family would be on the first flight. More than 600 customers have already signed up, paying deposits on fares that were recently raised to $250,000. Those passengers would get a super-roller-coaster ride to the edge of space and back, with a few minutes of weightlessness and an astronaut's-eye view of the curving earth beneath the black sky of space.

(NBC News)

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