Virgin Galactic profile: Spaceship Two

Virgin Galactic has an unusual idea for a spaceship.  While theirs is plane shaped and lands like the Shuttle, it attaches to a larger plane which lifts it up to 50 or 60 thousand feet and drops it, after which it uses its own rocket motors to leave the atmosphere.  Virgin Galactic says it's cheaper, easier and more environmentally friendly.

The technology was proven in the X Prize, with Spaceship One, carried by White Knight One.  Since then, they've improved it with passengers in mind.  Spaceship Two can carry six passengers and two pilots.  It has large circular windows so you will have good views of the Earth as you play in zero G (and they advertise lots of room in the cabin to do summersalts and flips.

The ship itself is made of carbon composite materials.  Carbon composites are lighter weight, tolerate extreme heat better, and have less propensity to warp or fracture. 

Here's a video showing the ship itself.

Another interesting feature are the wings on Spaceship Two, which change position.  This helps the craft orient itself naturally in the atmosphere for landing, reducing the chance of catastrophe during re-entry.  They call it "feathered flight."  Here's a  full explanation from a Virgin Galactic press release of April 5, 2011.

Perhaps the most innovative safety feature employed by SpaceshipOne and now SpaceShipTwo is the unique way it returns into the dense atmosphere from the vacuum of space. This part of space flight has always been considered as one of the most technically challenging and dangerous and Burt Rutan was determined to find a failsafe solution which remained true to Scaled Composite’s philosophy of safety through simplicity. His inspiration for what is known as the feathered re-entry was the humble shuttlecock, which like SpaceShipTwo relies on aerodynamic design and laws of physics to control speed and attitude.

Once out of the atmosphere the entire tail structure of the spaceship can be rotated upwards to about 65º. The feathered configuration allows an automatic control of attitude with the fuselage parallel to the horizon. This creates very high drag as the spacecraft descends through the upper regions of the atmosphere. The feather configuration is also highly stable, effectively giving the pilot a hands-free re-entry capability, something that has not been possible on spacecraft before, without resorting to computer controlled fly-by-wire systems. The combination of high drag and low weight (due to the very light materials used to construct the vehicle) mean that the skin temperature during re-entry stays very low compared to previous manned spacecraft and thermal protection systems such as heat shields or tiles are not needed. During a full sub-orbital spaceflight, at around 70,000ft following re-entry, the feather lowers to its original configuration and the spaceship becomes a glider for the flight back to the spaceport runway.

And here's a video of the test flight.  (It was also the third flight in 12 days--talk about turnaround!):

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