The rumors were true this time. Early Monday morning, WhiteKnightTwo took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port with SpaceShipTwo slung between its twin fuselages. About 45 minutes after its 7:02 am PDT (1402 GMT) takeoff, WhiteKnightTwo released SpaceShipTwo, as it had done about two dozen times previously. This time, though, SpaceShipTwo did something it hadn’t yet done: ignite its hybrid rocket motor in flight. The motor burned for 16 seconds before turning off, after which SpaceShipTwo glided to a safe runway landing in Mojave. According to a Virgin Galactic statement issued after the flight, SpaceShipTwo reached a peak altitude of 16,800 meters (55,000 feet) and went supersonic, topping out at Mach 1.2.
“The first powered flight of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was without any doubt, our single most important flight test to date,” Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson said in a statement after the flight. “Today’s supersonic success opens the way for a rapid expansion of the spaceship’s powered flight envelope, with a very realistic goal of full space flight by the year’s end.”
“The rocket motor ignition went as planned, with the expected burn duration, good engine performance and solid vehicle handling qualities throughout,” said Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides. “The successful outcome of this test marks a pivotal point for our program. We will now embark on a handful of similar powered flight tests, and then make our first test flight to space.”
The company hasn’t disclosed a timetable for SpaceShipTwo’s future flights, beyond a “full space flight” (presumably to at least 100 kilometers altitude). After its first powered test flight on the Wright Brothers’ centennial (December 17, 2003), which was similar in performance to this one, SpaceShipOne flew three more test flights before its historic June 21, 2004, flight to 100 kilometers. That suggests there’s likely to be at least three more flights, and perhaps more, before SpaceShipTwo shoots for the Karman Line.
Link to the video of the powered portion of the flight, from Virgin Galactic: http://youtu.be/VXbbEGK9oMI