back to article Virgin spaceplane makes maiden rocket-powered flight

Virgin Galactic’s space tourism operation conducted its first rocket-powered flight on Thursday, and appears to have recorded a roaring success. A craft named VSS Unity was hoisted to an altitude of 46,500 feet by designated schlep-plane WhiteKnightTwo, then released. “After a few seconds, Unity’s rocket motor was brought to …

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Perhaps?

That will quieten(not silence) the critics if the 'Beardy One' who seem to have been pretty vocal since Space-X started getting its act together and Elon Musk came out with the BFR concept.

Interesting times especially as NASA seems to be fighing for every penny from the Trump Hedegmony. He has clearly forgotten the pride that going to the moon gave the people of the USA in the face of the debacle that was unfolding in Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia.

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Re: Perhaps?

Not really. The Virgin stuff is as silly and pointless now as it was five years ago. In principle it's the same as a 1970s era Boeing 707 Vomit Comet, just a ballistic arc to simulate zero-g: doesn't go anywhere, doesn't orbit, doesn't produce any tech relevant to real space travel.

If rich idiots want an "Astronaut" Merit Badge for being fireworked up to an arbitrary altitude, more fool them.

There are companies doing real space tech ranging from SpaceX to lesser-known Reaction Engines ... And there's Beardy with his endless puffery and vacuous marketing stunts.

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Re: Perhaps?

doesn't produce any tech relevant to real space travel.

Whilst I agree with your main point, that Branson's primary goal seems to just be about giving rides to rich tourists, I think the principle of an air-launched second stage is one worth pursuing as an alternative to ground to space rocketry, which (with the exception of Reaction Engines) is what everyone else is doing.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Perhaps?

And there's Beardy with his endless puffery and vacuous marketing stunts.

I wish I had the money he was making from them, though...

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Re: Perhaps?

TBF it currently is the thing that is most likely to allow me to get 'above' the atmosphere and back alive. There is one chance in a few million I might get up there in this - which, at 6'5 is a lot better than having to earn enough to make my own spacecraft rather than just book two seats on this!

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ncp

Re: Perhaps?

"The Virgin stuff is as silly and pointless now as it was five years ago."

"If rich idiots want an "Astronaut" Merit Badge for being fireworked up to an arbitrary altitude, more fool them."

I think you have just answered your own question there - SRB is a businessman, and he sees a business case for this venture and an opportunity to make a profit for Virgin Galactic, or perhaps as a loss-making halo product for the rest of the Virgin Group, as well as make his mark on history. Silly and pointless it is not.

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Re: Perhaps?

I think the principle of an air-launched second stage is one worth pursuing as an alternative to ground to space rocketry, which (with the exception of Reaction Engines) is what everyone else is doing.

Well not quite everyone.

Virgin Orbit are developing their LauncherOne rocket which can put ~220kg into LEO. Except LauncherOne is too large to mount on Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo vehicle and they're just using a former Virgin Atlantic 747-400 as a launch platform. SpaceShipTwo is looking more and more like a toy for moderately rich space cadets who can't afford an ISS trip. There may be some science applications but you can do a lot of those quick experiments on the vomit-comet anyway.

However, they're not the only ones.

Scaled Composites have their own Stratolaunch vehicle in development which can carry three PegasusXL Air-to-Orbit rockets (each capable of putting ~440kg into LEO).

The actual Pegasus rockets have already seen over a decade of service being dropped from a Lockheed Tristar.

Generation Orbit are also working on a much smaller Learjet-carried system offering a sub-orbital rocket and a small (~50kg to LEO) orbital vehicle.

ARCA have also experimented with a variety of bits and pieces though are currently working on mostly surface-launch vehicles because Balloon-Launch was found to be really hard.

Funny how using a surplus airliner is often cheaper than developing an entirely new carrier!

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Re: Perhaps?

I doubt it will silence anyone,.... the altitude was not quite 16 miles, it needs to be 62 to qualify as space. That means there's still a lot of work to be done. To put this in context, Alan Eustace parachuted from 25.7 miles up; a balloon can take people to a greater altitude than Virgin Galactic can achieve at this point in time.

If VG were offering safe, stratospheric jumps, using a re-usable capsule and disposable balloon, that would be a market, and quite achievable I think.

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Re: Perhaps?

Air launched second stages aren't new though - the Pegasus launcher has been doing it since 1990 from an old Tristar, and Paul Allen's Stratolaunch monster is rumbling around Mojave.

Now if Branson was offering to fire sublebrities into orbit - that's a project we could all get behind.

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Re: Perhaps?

SpaceShip 2 is supposed to reach 110km, ie above the Karmen line and therefore in space.

As far as NASA is concerned that's enough to get your "Astronaut" Merit Badge or astronaut wings as they call them, which is why all the pilots of the X-15 who flew over 80km (NASA and the USAF's designation at the time) received their astronaut wings.

In fact, both the test pilots of SS1 have received their wings.

I assume this doesn't cover passengers though.

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This post has been deleted by its author

Re: most likely to allow me to get 'above' the atmosphere and back alive

I'd trust Blue Origin's New Shepard over this.

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Re: the principle of an air-launched second stage is one worth pursuing

I'm not convinced. It adds a lot of complexity for not a lot of gain. The height and delta-v gains are trivial. The main benefits are avoiding most of the atmosphere, being able to use a nozzle tuned for near-vacuum, and some flexibility over where you launch from. It just doesn't seem worth the effort and complexity of adding a whole other aircraft.

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LDS
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Devil

"I assume this doesn't cover passengers though."

Did the astronaut monkeys get their wings?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Perhaps?

"If VG were offering safe, stratospheric jumps, using a re-usable capsule and disposable balloon, that would be a market, and quite achievable I think."

Ah, this is obviously some strange usage of the word 'safe' that I wasn't previously aware of.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Perhaps?

@Milton: "The Virgin stuff is as silly and pointless now as it was five years ago. In principle it's the same as a 1970s era Boeing 707 Vomit Comet, just a ballistic arc to simulate zero-g: doesn't go anywhere, doesn't orbit, doesn't produce any tech relevant to real space travel.

If rich idiots want an "Astronaut" Merit Badge for being fireworked up to an arbitrary altitude, more fool them."

The Kármán line, above which SS2 is designed to travel, is by definition the limit beyond which it's impossible for anything to fly aerodynamically. That's why it's generally accepted as the altitude at which "space" begins. Practically speaking, nothing can fly remotely near that altitude using aerodynamic lift.

Note also that a "vomit comet" trip involves a repeated pattern of climb and dive to give periods of (typically) 25s apparent weightlessness followed by perhaps twice that time pulling close to 2g, the cabin rotating in pitch all the time.

This all happens well inside the atmosphere at ordinary aircraft heights, in an aircraft cabin without much in the way of windows: you experience flight noise, no view, and the process often causes nausea (the clue is in the name "vomit comet").

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reduced_gravity_aircraft

Apparently, "one third [become] violently ill, the next third moderately ill, and the final third not at all." Vomiting is referred to as "ill".

What Virgin Galactic will offer is very different and akin to Alan Shepard's 1961 trip as the first American in space (Mercury-Redstone 3/Freedom 7) - but with a smoother ride and much better facilities.

What you'll get from Virgin Galactic is a jet flight up to about 50,000 feet (15,000m) with the space ship slung beneath a conventional jet aircraft, followed by release and a rocket powered supersonic flight (pulling perhaps 3.8g) out of the atmosphere into space, reaching about 110km (361,000 ft), with view ports through which the passengers can see the blackness of space, the curvature of Earth, and a view for maybe a thousand miles around.

Once the engine's cut, Branson's ride will offer several minutes (not a fraction of a minute) of free fall during which passengers will be able to float around and enjoy the view. Most people experiencing zero g in this sort of way don't get sick.

http://www.parabolicarc.com/2009/12/07/spaceshiptwo-whiteknighttwo-specs-flight-profile/

Certainly one might reasonably argue that the Virgin Galactic sub-orbital ride business is silly and pointless and you might well be right. But the altitude they're aiming for isn't arbitrary, and the ride's going to be a lot more substantial than a vomit comet trip.

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aqk
Paris Hilton

Re: Perhaps? How about both?

Let the Beardy one help out fixing up the rest of the British Virgin Islands first, after last Autumn's hurricane(s) that nearly wiped out civilisation there. Or is he too busy counting the remaining wine bottles in his BVI private island bomb shelter?

I seem to recall Elon Musk had time to help out the folks in Puerto Rico. And not just throwing paper towels around, the way their silly POTUS did.

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Thumb Up

Stargazer - Orbital ATK's Tristar...

https://www.orbitalatk.com/flight-systems/space-launch-vehicles/pegasus/default.aspx

The Tristar conversion was done over in the UK by Marshall Aerospace of Cambridge, who also did follow on work to modify it to carry NASA's X-34

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Branson finally follows in Chuck Yeager footsteps....

So impressed....Bell X-1 did this stunt on Oct 14, 1947

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Branson finally follows in Chuck Yeager footsteps....

"So impressed....Bell X-1 did this stunt on Oct 14, 1947"

But the inflight drink service was crap.

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Re: Perhaps?

it's not pointless

mr branson's taken the interest of backlog to drum up investment in the sector. he's also got a launch company called launcher one that will do small satellite launches from an airplane allowing better performance to any inclination and hopefully quick turnaround.

not pointless at all! better spend on aerospace than some dumb yacht!

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Hoist rocket to altitude, light blue touch paper, retire

Isn't that exactly what we (the Special Projects Bureau) were doing with the Lohan mission? It's just a matter of scale...

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Boffin

Re: Hoist rocket to altitude, light blue touch paper, retire

LOHAN got abandoned... How about chatting up a friendly fishing boat, and setting her off in international waters?

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Re: Hoist rocket to altitude, light blue touch paper, retire

I've already been through one playmonaut attempted rescue at sea; I'm not sure I could stand another one!

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Out of interest, how fast is the speed of sound at that altitude? Was Mach 1.8 actually fast enough to create a sonic boom?

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Anonymous Coward

Isn't the Mach number always relative to the speed of sound for a given local air density?

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Re how fast

Mach 1 drops fro 760mph at sea level to around 660mph at 35000 feet and seems to stay there up to 60000 ft but I cant find figures for above that. It may be meaningless above there as the mean free path may be so long that any wave front disappears in noise. Perhaps Branson could do some useful science at this level by checking out for his own sonic boom on the way down.

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Re: Re how fast

...It may be meaningless above there as the mean free path may be so long that any wave front disappears in noise....

Another way of putting that is that the Mach number refers to your speed in relation to the local speed of sound in air - so it becomes irrelevent when there is no air around you...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Re how fast

the Mach number refers to your speed in relation to the local speed of sound in air - so it becomes irrelevent when there is no air around you...

in space no one can hear you scream

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Re: Re how fast

> "Perhaps Branson could do some useful science at this level by checking out for his own sonic boom on the way down."

You mean, like, chuck him out so he can listen for it?

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aqk
Headmaster

Re: Re how fast? Let's not be pedantic.

So what's the speed of sound above 497,300 feet?

Did I read somewhere that in space no one can hear you scream?

Please. We need more elaboration. Both in miles/hour AND Mach numbers.

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high quality microgravity?

"This is not just microgravity, this is M&SVirgin microgravity"?

Just how does Virgin's offering differ from plain old microgravity?

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Coat

Re: high quality microgravity?

Virgin microgravity

No-one's had it before?

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Coat

Re: high quality microgravity?

"Virgin microgravity

No-one's had it before?"

that would be... "Extra Virgin"

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SpaceShipTwo is great, less overhyped than SpaceX

SpaceShipOne and now SpaceShipTwo are great, and less overhyped than SpaceX. Whereas SpaceX just borrowed rocket designs from 1950s (former WWII German rocket designs), SpaceShipOne backed by Microsoft Founder and now SpaceShipTwo backed by Virgin are way better projects one can look up to and follow the progress.

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Re: SpaceShipTwo is great, less overhyped than SpaceX

No, SpaceShips One and Two are overhyped. Assuming equal mass, the energy required to reach orbit is more than forty (40) times greater than the energy required to reach an altitude of 100km. They're not playing in the same league.

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Re: SpaceShipTwo is great, less overhyped than SpaceX

SpaceX are real rockets, that can even land and re-use their first stages. They provide supplies to ISS, put real satellites into orbit, and will soon put people into space.

See synchronised landing of two first stages on youtube.

There is no comparison with the Virgin project, which is more of a toy.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: SpaceShipTwo is great, less overhyped than SpaceX

SpaceShips Two and it's spaceplane are for transporting people! And the track-record of SpaceShip One is there. So it's more exiting, and something that comes close to SpaceShuttle (for transporting people) in near orbit. SpaceX is just boring rockets, with very little innovation. No one can trust Telsa Autopilot nor SpaceX rockets to safely transfer people at the moment. European Space Agencies Adriane 5 rocket is certainly a better design than anything SpaceX has, plus SpaceX is just a copies of older rocket designs plus some hype around collecting them back, while Adriane 5 also drops stackes back (lands controlled in sea).

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Thumb Down

Re: SpaceShipTwo is great, less overhyped than SpaceX

The concept of carrying a rocket on the back of a jet isn't anything new either. The concept of the ultraplane goes back to the fifties and was also focused on transporting people.

The only reason that there may be more innovation from Virgin Galactic than SpaceX (which I don't agree is the case) is that the field of air launched passenger rockets is much less mature than the field of ground launched "boring rockets".

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Re: SpaceShipTwo is great, less overhyped than SpaceX

"SpaceShips Two and it's spaceplane are for transporting people!"

Sure. Up and down again. To go orbital, and actually dock with, say, ISS, you have to go much faster.

So it's a fun thing of no consequence to real space work.

I bet SpaceX will put people on ISS before Virgin takes any paying customers up for vomit-comet rides.

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Re: SpaceShipTwo is great, less overhyped than SpaceX

There is also the not so small factor that the rocket uses solid fuel. Which is MUCH safer than hydrazine (not hard, almost anything other than concentrated phenol or crystalised picric acid is safer than hydrazine). This is important for human rated flight.

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Not just for tourists...

A lot of the money will probably be from tourists but there are a few companies (including VG) who are planning science-only jaunts. Apparently there is a surprising amount of zero-g science you can get done in a few minutes. Even though the time is short, for the same money that you would spend on launch to ISS or whatever, you can get a _lot_ of 6 minute sessions and you can sit right next to your experiment so the apparatus can be a lot simpler.

VG's offering is here: https://www.virgingalactic.com/research/

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Hello Concorde!

(If it was still flying) Just goes to show how advanced the old bird was, and how I will take the regret of never having flown on one to my dying day.

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Unhappy

Re: Hello Concorde!

Tell me about it! I had the opportunity (and the money) to fly Concorde on multiple occasions when it used to do its "supersonic lunches over the Bay of Biscay" trips from RAF Fairford during the (Royal (depending on year)) International Air Tattoo. I never took advantage of this as I wanted to watch the military stuff (including lots of former Soviet stuff in those days). I told myself that when BA decided to retire Concorde that they would retire it gracefully with plenty of charter flights to give all those who wanted it an experience of Mach 2. It never occurred to me that the chairman would have a fit of pique and pull the whole fleet practically overnight.

As you so rightly say, a regret I will take with me to my grave.

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Re: Hello Concorde!

Missed opportunity for me too.

I was working for Air France at the time. The company was struggling to fill seats when the flights resumed after the accident, so offered employees the possibility to book one-way flights to NY (or maybe it was the return leg, can't remember) for a limited period, at ridiculous prices. I managed to secure a seat, but had to cancel the trip for personal reasons, which seem petty in retrospect compared to the regrets I have.

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Re: Hello Concorde!

I was working in NYC in the mid '70s - about the time there was a twofer on offer: one way on QE2 and the other way on Concorde.

I could probably have afforded it, but decided instead to spend somewhat less on driving a Landrover from London to Kathmandhu and back. As that took 10 months and included driving right round India plus a train ride to Darjeeling and an Annapurna trek it was the certainly the better choice.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Hello Concorde!

Blew a hole on my savings at the time on 2 tickets on Concorde to New York. Most memorable moment was soon after the pilot announced he was going to turn reheat back on, the two slight surges as they were turned on in pairs. I think it was the inner first, then the outer.

Took the obligatory pictures of the Mach indicator climbing up to 2.0 and the view out of the window. We hung around till most of the passengers had disembarked, had a quick peek into the cockpit and got the pilots to sign a model of Concorde that I had taken with me,

As a life-long aircraft enthusiast, the flight was over all too soon for me, and I can understand Mark Shuttleworth's comment about space excursion. As @Martin Gregorie mentions, you can find a better use for the money. In my particular case, what was more rewarding than the experience I had was the effect it had on my Sister, who was the recipient of the other ticket. She really was (and still is) blown away by Concorde and the whole experience. I think she even wrote a letter of support to Beardy Branson when he was offering to buy the BA Concordes.

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Re: Hello Concorde!

I did the Bay of Biscay joyride on G-BOAE as a competition price in 1991, and it was an experience. With a reduced fuel load and no luggage or cargo in the hold the thing was lighter than a normal scheduled flight and the pilots were having a bit of fun. The take off and climb out is stuck in my memory forever as an experience, the acceleration had me feeling we were going vertical. Amazing. Later we got to cheer and clap when the display went through Mach 1 and then Mach 2 at 60,000 feet. Still got the souvenir champagne glass and Concorde model, bag tags, certificate in folder and other bits and bobs.

People travelling on Virgin Spaceship 2 will enjoy something that surpasses that, and if I had the spare money I would certainly be in the (long) queue.

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Anonymous Coward

sub-orbital flight?

Who wants LEO where money is concerned? Someone just needs to (reliably!) crack London-to-Auckland (i.e. a half-planet hop) in under an hour and their bank balance will make Elon's look like a six-year-old hawking for sweets at the corner store.

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Coat

Re: sub-orbital flight?

They should hire Jeff Lynne and search agencies to be cabin crew, that way it'll be: SEO in LEO with the ELO

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