Saturday, March 14, 2009

Test flights for SpaceShipTwo mothership
Virgin Galactic's aim is to propel public space travel into reality

The SpaceShipTwo mothership WhiteKnightTwo took to the air for the first time on Dec. 21, 2008 following several weeks of taxi tests. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

By Leonard David
updated 10:29 a.m. PT, Fri., March. 13, 2009

The skies over California's Mojave Air and Space Port are serving as the proving ground for the WhiteKnightTwo, the massive mothership being tested to air-launch commercial spaceliners on suborbital flights.

A third test flight of the huge carrier craft — which looks like a giant catamaran for the sky — is deemed as "imminent", said Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic — the company put into business by U.K. adventurer and billionaire Richard Branson and his Virgin Group, created

Virgin Galactic's aim is to propel public space travel into reality.

WhiteKnightTwo's builders, the Mojave spaceport-based Scaled Composites, unveiled the spacecraft mothership on July 28, 2008. That rollout was followed by a Dec. 21 maiden flight with another scurry into the sky taking place in early February.

While the third flight of the vehicle is close at hand, "we never give a date in advance as we only take off in light winds and generally good weather at this stage in an experimental program," Whitehorn told

WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) will haul the suborbital SpaceShipTwo spaceliner to a high-altitude release point. That spaceship, the first of which is nearing completion, has moved from drawings to hardware thanks to the Scaled Composites work force under the watchful eye of the firm's founder, Burt Rutan - now Chief Technology Officer and Chairman Emeritus of the company.

Roaring to life via a hybrid rocket motor, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers on a suborbital trajectory, scooting the rubber-necking "rush hour" commuters to the edge of space and returning them to terra firma at $200,000 a seat.

Whitehorn said that testing of the WK2 carrier plane — christened "Eve" in honor of Richard Branson's mother — has gone well.

"We now have just under four hours flying on WhiteKnightTwo and have now gone above 18,000 feet," Whitehorn said. "We are very pleased with progress so far and it would be fair to describe her performance so far as flawless," he added.

The up-and-coming next test flight is set to raise the bar in altitude and flight-duration of the vehicle, Whitehorn said, among other items.

Aircraft heading: Oshkosh, Wisconsin
For those hungering for an up close and personal look at WhiteKnightTwo, best head for the Experimental Aircraft Association's AirVenture extravaganza being held July 27-Aug. 2 in Oshkosh, Wisc.

After successfully completing its initial flight test program, space launch vehicle Virgin Mothership (VMS) Eve is slated to make its "world public debut" there on July 27.

The space launch vehicle will arrive as part of the opening-day air show.

AirVenture attendees are being promised opportunities for up-close viewing of the vehicle on the ground each day until its departure flight as part of the Saturday, Aug. 1 air show. Event organizers and Virgin Galactic officials are also scoping out additional showcase flights during the week.

Whitehorn pointed out that VMS Eve is not only being designed to lift SpaceShipTwo. The Virgin Galactic business case for space also includes unmanned satellite launch or doubling as a space science vehicle, as well as an astronaut training craft.

According to Whitehorn, Virgin Galactic plans to conduct test flights of VMS Eve carrying SpaceShipTwo during the second half of 2009.

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New Merlin Vacuum engine demonstrates highest efficiency for an American hydrocarbon rocket engine

McGregor, TX – (March 09, 2009) – Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX) successfully conducted a full mission duration firing of its new Merlin Vacuum engine on March 7, at SpaceX's Test Facility in McGregor, Texas. The engine fired for a full six minutes, consuming 100,000 pounds of liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene propellant.

The new engine, which powers the upper stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle, demonstrated a vacuum specific impulse of 342 seconds – the highest efficiency ever for an American hydrocarbon rocket engine. Thrust was measured at approximately 92,500 lb of force in vacuum conditions and the engine remained thermally stable over the entire run.

"Specific impulse, or Isp, indicates how efficiently a rocket engine converts propellant into thrust," said Tom Mueller, Vice President of Propulsion for SpaceX. "With a vacuum Isp of 342 seconds, the new Merlin Vacuum engine has exceeded our requirements, setting a new standard for American hydrocarbon engine performance in space."

Based on the Merlin 1C engine that boosted the SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket to orbit in 2008, the Merlin Vacuum engine uses a regeneratively cooled combustion chamber. However, the vacuum engine features a larger exhaust section than the Merlin 1C and a much larger radiatively cooled expansion nozzle, in order to maximize performance in the vacuum of space.

The Merlin Vacuum engine provides the final push that delivers customer spacecraft into their desired orbits. A redundant ignition system ensures the engine can shut down and restart multiple times. The engine can also operate at a reduced thrust to achieve optimum performance. During recent tests, the engine was successfully throttled down to 75 percent of maximum thrust, and upcoming tests will demonstrate throttling to approximately 60 percent of maximum thrust.

"Falcon 9 was designed from the ground up to provide our customers with breakthrough advances in reliability," said Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX. "In successfully adapting our flight tested first stage engine for use on the second stage, this recent test further validates the architecture of Falcon 9, designed to provide customers with high reliability at a fraction of traditional costs."

SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft were recently selected by NASA to resupply cargo to the International Space Station after the shuttle retires in 2010. The inaugural flight of Falcon 9 is scheduled for later this year from SpaceX's launch pad SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

About SpaceX

SpaceX is revolutionizing access to space by developing a family of launch vehicles and spacecraft intended to increase the reliability and reduce the cost of both manned and unmanned space transportation, ultimately by a factor of ten. With its Falcon line of launch vehicles, powered by internally-developed Merlin engines, SpaceX offers light, medium and heavy lift capabilities to deliver spacecraft into any altitude and inclination, from low-Earth to geosynchronous orbit to planetary missions. On September 28, 2008, Falcon 1, designed and manufactured from the ground up by SpaceX, became the first privately developed liquid fuel rocket to orbit the Earth, demonstrating that low cost and reliability can be coupled in commercial spaceflight.

As a winner of the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services competition (COTS), SpaceX is in a position to help fill the gap in American spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS) when the Space Shuttle retires in 2010. Under the existing Agreement, SpaceX will conduct three flights of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft for NASA, culminating in Dragon berthing with the ISS. SpaceX is the only COTS contender with the capability to return cargo and crew to Earth. NASA also has an option to demonstrate crew services to the ISS using the Falcon 9 / Dragon system.

NASA recently selected the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft for the International Space Station Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) contract award. The contract includes 12 flights between 2010 and 2015, which represents a guaranteed minimum of 20,000 kg to be carried to the International Space Station.

Founded in 2002, the SpaceX team now numbers more than 620 full time employees, located primarily in Hawthorne, California, with additional locations, including SpaceX's Texas Test Facility in McGregor near Waco; offices in Washington DC; and launch facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and the Marshall Islands in the Central Pacific.

A new video tour of SpaceX’s Texas Test Site conducted by Tom Mueller, VP of Propulsion can be viewed here.

Photo Caption: The new SpaceX Merlin Vacuum second stage engine undergoing a mission-length test firing at the SpaceX Test Facility in McGregor, Texas. The engine will power the upper stage on the inaugural flight of the new Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, scheduled for later this year. Credit: SpaceX.

Photo Caption: Illustration of the new SpaceX Merlin Vacuum second stage engine in action. The large expansion nozzle increases the engine's performance in the vacuum of space.

Credit: SpaceX.