Another step forward for SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor

If you go to Virgin Galactic’s web site today you’ll see a release about the first flight of WhiteKnightTwo by Virgin Galactic chief test pilot David Mackay, which took place yesterday in Mojave. “I was able to fly WhiteKnight through the full extent of its flight envelope—to its maximum altitude, speed and crosswind limit—so it was a very thorough first look,” he said in the statement, which also indicated he would be making more test flights of the carrier aircraft for SpaceShipTwo in the coming months.

A bigger milestone, though, may have been a few days earlier. According to Scaled Composites’s test summaries, Scaled and Sierra Nevada Corporation performed on Sunday a “full duration hot-fire” of the rocket motor that will power SpaceShipTwo on its suborbital flights. The 55-second burn appeared to be a success, according to the brief summary, which indicated that “all objectives [were] completed” in the test. The engine test was the seventh for the full-scale “RocketMotorTwo” engine, and the first in five months.

The slow development of SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor has been a major factor in the delays involved in getting the vehicle ready for test flights. “They’ve had to scale up the hybrid from a relatively smaller version to a bigger version,” George Whitesides, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic, said at the NewSpace 2011 conference at NASA Ames at the end of July. “We’ve seen some good progress over the summer,” he added. “We expect to be flying into space next year.”

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