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First Feather: SS2 Successfully Deploys Drag-Inducing Re-entry System

SS2 Feather
SpaceShipTwo deploys its feather configuration for the first time on May 4.
Photo credit: Clay Center Observatory

May 4, 2011 —Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2/VMS Enterprise) demonstrated its unique re-entry “feather” configuration for the first time Wednesday, May 4, during its seventh test flight over Mojave Air and Spaceport, California. Virgin Galactic called the test flight - the third in 12 days - a major milestone on the path to powered test flights and commercial operations.

With SS2 attached to the center spar, the mothership WhiteKnightTwo (WK2/VMS Eve) took off at 6:43 a.m. PDT. Scaled Composites test pilots Pete Siebold and Clint Nichols were in the spaceship as Mark Stucky, Brian Maisler, and Brandon Inks manned the mothership. Forty-five minutes later SS2 cleanly released from 51,500 feet, established a stable glide profile, then deployed its re-entry feathered configuration by rotating its tail section upward to a 65 degree angle to the fuselage. It remained at a level pitch for approximately 1 minute, 15 seconds during a near-vertical 15,500 fpm descent.

As designed, SS2’s drop was slowed by the drag created by the raised tail section before the pilots reconfigured the spaceship to its normal glide mode around 33,500 feet and glided back to Mojave for a smooth landing. Elapsed time from its release to the ground was about 11 minutes, 5 seconds.

All objectives for the flight were met and detailed flight data is now being analyzed by the engineers at Scaled Composites who designed and built Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital spacecraft.

“In all test flight programs, after the training, planning, and rehearsing, there comes the moment when you have to go up there and fly it for real,” Siebold said after the test flight. “This morning’s flight was a test pilot’s dream. The spaceship is a joy to fly and the feathered descent portion added a new, unusual but wonderful dynamic to the ride.

“The fact that it all went to plan, that there were no surprises, and that we brought VSS Enterprise back to Mojave safe and sound is a great testament to the whole team.”

George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic CEO and president, commented, “We have also shown this morning that the unique feathering re-entry mechanism, probably the single most important safety innovation within the whole system, works perfectly. This is yet another important milestone successfully passed for Virgin Galactic, and brings us ever closer to the start of commercial operations. Credit is due to the whole Scaled team, whose meticulous planning and great skill are changing the course of history.”

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