Virgin Galactic has been working on perfecting its second-generation SpaceShip Two prototype commercial spaceship, made primarily of carbon composites, for more than two years. Recently, Virgin Galactic test pilot David Mackay reportedly told attendees of the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference that the company hopes to perform suborbital tests of the spaceship during 2012.
Mackay said that Virgin hopes to install the rocket motor and start powered flight testing of the spaceship during the later part of the year. (You can access test summaries here.)
The VSS Enterprise, the first of five SpaceShip Two commercial spacecraft, all with all-carbon-composite structures, returns to Earth in its first feather, or unpowered, flight on May 4, 2011. (Source: Clay Center Observatory)
SpaceShipTwo is being built and tested by The Spaceship Company, a joint venture between the Virgin Group and Scaled Composites. Scaled Composites, owned by Northrop Grumman, is a specialist in the design, tooling, and manufacturing of aircraft, as well as of specialty composite structures. It also does developmental flight tests of both air and space vehicles.
Scaled Composites built and tested the prototypes of both SpaceShip Two and Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnight Two, the high-altitude launch vehicle that will catapult SpaceShip Two out of the atmosphere. The WhiteKnight Two carrier aircraft is the largest all-carbon-composite aviation vehicle ever built, according to Virgin's Website. The Spaceship Company began shifting the building and testing of both craft into commercial production in March 2010.
SpaceShip Two employs the same technology, carbon composite construction, and design as Scaled Composites' original SpaceShip One, a high-altitude manned research rocket designed for suborbital flight, and the first private manned spacecraft. At 60 feet in length, the newer craft is about twice the size of SpaceShip One and is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots.
Very little technical detail is available about either SpaceShip Two's or WhiteKnight Two's construction, except that they are reportedly made entirely from carbon composites. However, a page on HowStuffWorks says that the carbon composite shell is sandwiched around a honeycomb core. That makes me think of Hexcel's HexWeb honeycomb core composite material used in both the aircraft structure and the blades of Sikorsky Aircraft's S-97 Raider helicopters the US Army is evaluating. There, it's being used primarily to shed as much weight as possible, which is obviously extremely important in a suborbital vehicle.
Is this a prototype of the space vehicle Richard Branson is behind, which would take average citizens (albeit those with big fat pocketbooks) into space flight? Any sense of how different the all-composite approach is on this craft compared to what Boeing accomplished with the Dreamliner 787?
This is great. It's good to see that one crazy guy -- Richard Branson -- can take the dream of space flight and move forward on his own without a government sponsored organization. He's getting closer and closer to making this dream happen. Rock on, Richard.
Yes, Beth, this is that spaceship. There are very few details about how composites have been used in SS2 on any of the websites I checked. However, both SS2 and WK2 are consistently described as "all-carbon- composite" which seems to mean the shell. It's also worthwhile to note that Scaled Composites, which built and tested previous-version vehicles, and did the same for the SS2 and WK2 prototypes, makes "speciality composite structures," so I'm guessing that the airframe structures are also made of composites. In other words, there are probably even more than in the 787.
Apparently, if you have enough money, as Branson does, you can fund all kinds of things.
Yes, TJ, it's a shame we didn't meet Clarke's timetable. Back in 1967, Clarke's timetable actually seemed plausible. While much of the technology advancements (especially the Internet, military, and medical technology) have been impressive in the past few decades, exploration of space has been a disappointment. Perhaps it needs to be monetized to really leap forward -- in which case Branson may be on the right track.
I agree, Ann. I think there has been a lack of clear vision for NASA. By clear, I mean a vision the voters can understand and get behind. The last clear vision was getting on the moon by the end of the 60s. That vision was tied to the fear of the USSR getting ahead of us in space. Once we landed on the moon, the vision was gone. Maybe the next vision is paid space travel, the ultimate amusement park.
Rob, I was thinking more about funding, but you bring up an important point: effective PR and the images it portrays. PR is often considered to be a dirty word by engineers, but that's what drives a lot of perception, in this case, by the public, aka voters. Not only did landing on the moon end one vision, or image, but the USSR's fall ended the vision of competing with the Soviets.
They couldn't ask for a better company to do the flight tests on the composites. Scaled Composites knows more about this technology than anyone -- they built the Voyager aircraft that flew around the world without refueling in 1986.
This article prompts me to think about the next phase of Virgin's business venture in space. Along with future sub-orbital space science missions and orbital launches of small satellites, I've read where Virgin Galactic is also hoping to offer orbital human spaceflights as well.
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Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.