SpaceShipTwo Re-entry System Tested

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Virgin Galactic, the commercial space arm of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, released a video clip of the latest test flight of SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger suborbital vehicle built by Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif.

Like its predecessor SpaceShipOne, a prototype that won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize in 2004 for making the world’s first privately funded human spaceflight, SpaceShipTwo will dissipate forces from atmospheric re-entry by folding itself in half so that it falls through the air like a shuttlecock. Scaled calls it “feathering” and earlier this month SpaceShipTwo, which has been making glide tests in Mojave, flew in feathered format.

“SEXIEST SPACESHIP EVER”

WIDE ANGLE: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo

“I hope 18 months from now, we’ll be sitting in our spaceship waiting to be dropped from the mother ship and heading off into space,” Richard Branson tells me after watching shuttle Endeavour launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Monday.

“I’d never seen a shuttle launch,” he added. “Definitely something worth seeing in person. I can still feel a rumble in my stomach.”

Branson said he expects SpaceShipTwo’s test flights to be finished within 12 months, including its first foray into space. The spaceplane’s rocket engine has not yet been tested in flight.

Like SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo will be flown to an altitude of about 50,000 feet by a carrier aircraft, then dropped so its rocket engine can fire mid-air, boosting it the rest of the way out of the atmosphere.

“Today we received confirmation that the basic design of the spaceship is solid,” Virgin Galactic president George Whitesides says in the video clip. “It was a really major milestone.”