What happens when your company succeeds in successfully launching a space craft twice within the alloted window to win the Ansari X Prize? Well, in the case of Scaled Composite and their history making SpaceShipOne, an entrepreneur named Sir Richard Branson offers you a deal and starts laying down the groundworks to make the endeavor a commercial one, promising to offer rides to individuals and exploring other commercial aspects of the endeavor.
The new enterprise, suitably named Virgin Galactic (Branson's other successful endeavors include Virgin Records and Virgin Trains), has set about to create a new spacecraft line based on SpaceShipOne but bigger and more commercially viable (read comfortable). The new craft, dubbed appropriately SpaceShipTwo, is roughly twice the size of the original space vehicle (see comparison graphic below).
Along with a new commercially friendly size, SpaceShipTwo is sporting new re-entry technology. Called "feathering" by its inventor Burt Rutan, the spacecraft will pivot its wings in a high arch once in space, and the wings will act as a direction device, allowing the vehicle to enter the atmosphere at almost any angle and right itself for the ride back to terrafirma. An example of feathering could be seen in a badminton birdie, in which the shuttlecock rights itself to a downward position, although far less complicated as far as angles go. The graphic below details some of the flight process from WhiteKnightTwo mothership separation to re-entry.
The space vehicle is lifted into an appropriate launch height by the mothership WhiteKnightTwo. This vehicle is itself a work of aeronautical art, and is currently the largest all carbon fiber aircraft ever built. The mothership will take SpaceShipTwo into the air and release it at 48,000 ft for the no doubt brisk ride into outer space. The WhiteKnightTwo, as with spacevehicle, is roughly twice the size of its predecessor.
The WhiteKnightTwo itself may have commercial applications as a low cost launch platform for satellites, among other applications. This could help Virgin Galactic turn into a viable (profitable) endeavor, allowing it to expand its offerings for space travel. Who knows, perhaps soon a space tourism flight will be within the financial reach of most interested Earth dwellers (I for one am certainly in that category).
SpaceShipTwo and its mothership WhiteKnightTwo is set to start its required 50 test flights in 2009, with official space tourism flights planned to start in 2010. Of course, with an endeavor this ground breaking dates are subject to change, and an explosion earlier at the facilities has already impacted the original dates. But with the effort and talent in place the answer to a question of timeframe of available commercial space transportation from private companies definitely seems to be sooner than later. And that is a great thing. For more information, or to sign up for a trip currently costing $200,000, 10% required for deposit, visit the Virgin Galactic Site at www.virginGalactic.com.
(Images courtesy Virgin Galactic)
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