Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Virgin Galactic's Private Spaceship 'Dropped Like a Rock' After Glitch

A malfunction during the most recent test flight of the private spacecraft SpaceShipTwo sent the vehicle hurtling out of control until its crew could stabilize the craft for a safe landing.

The issue provided some heart-stopping moments for its airborne crew and ground handlers, but also allowed the vehicle's owner, Virgin Galactic, to showcase the craft's safety features.

The commercial space plane made its 16th glide flight on Sept. 29, following a hiatus for hangar work. For the first time, SpaceShipTwo carried a three-person crew — two pilots and a flight test engineer.

To begin, SpaceShipTwo was lifted to high altitude by its carrier plane, WhiteKnightTwo. After a clean release from WhiteKnightTwo, SpaceShipTwo immediately entered a rapid descent. Springing into action, the crew deployed the ship's novel feather re-entry system.

SpaceShipTwo's ability to feather its tail section is a safety feature that increases the vehicle's stability during atmospheric re-entry. Akin to the flight of a shuttlecock in badminton, the feather system allows SpaceShipTwo to rely on aerodynamics and the laws of physics to control speed and altitude.

The glide flight lasted a brief 7 minutes and 15 seconds. more