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Virgin Galactic to resume test flights

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES – Virgin Galactic is about to restart test flights with the rocket that eventually will carry paying passengers into suborbit from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.

The company ended those tests early this year after changing the fuel used to power the rocket. That forced the company to modify the rocket motor, grounding the spaceship.

Over the summer, Virgin began firing the modified motor in a series of “ground-qualification” tests to pave the way back to powered flights. With those tests successfully completed, flights are expected to launch again this fall from the Mojave Desert in California, said Virgin CEO George Whitesides in a presentation at the two-day International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight, an annual conference that opened in Las Cruces on Wednesday.

“Last week we completed the qualification firings of the rocket motor,” Whitesides said. “We’re ready to begin flight tests again now. It will start very soon, although I can’t give a date.”

The company will continue test flights in California until the rocket successfully reaches space. Then it will move operations to New Mexico’s spaceport.

In three previous tests, the rocket, known as SpaceShipTwo, flew progressively higher and faster, but it reached only 71,000 feet in its last flight in January. That’s well short of the internationally accepted boundary of space at 327,000 feet, or 62 miles up.

Under Virgin’s system, developed by Scaled Composites in California, SpaceShipTwo is carried on the underbelly of a mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, until reaching about 50,000 feet. At that point, it breaks away and fires its rockets to climb to space.

Scaled Composites achieved that feat after four tries in 2004, when it won the Ansari X Prize. That inspired the launch of Virgin Galactic, which contracted Scaled Composites to develop new versions of the mothership and the rocket to carry paying passengers to space.

“We expect to get to space altitude in a short number of flights, assuming the rocket performs as expected,” Whitesides told the Journal. “Scaled made it to space in four flights with SpaceShipOne. I believe it will be a little more than that for us, but not dramatically so.”

Once SpaceShipTwo successfully reaches space, Scaled Composites will turn over the rocket to Virgin Galactic for its commercial operations based in New Mexico. Virgin has already taken control of the mothership, which it flew to Spaceport America for some initial test operations in September.

“Once we take control of SpaceShipTwo, we expect to do some more testing here in New Mexico, but that will primarily be efficiency testing rather than technology testing,” Whitesides said. “It will give pilots an opportunity to train at this airfield after Mojave to practice things like coming in on final approach.”

The company has continuously pushed back the timeframe for when it expects to start flying tourists out of Spaceport America. The latest estimate by Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson is for commercial flights to begin in early 2015.

Whitesides gave weight to that estimate at the symposium Wednesday.

“We’ll have more powered flights in Mojave this fall, then SpaceShipTwo will be handed over from Scaled Composites, and then there will be more flights for pilot testing in New Mexico,” Whitesides said. “But I believe this year coming up is the one people will remember for a long time.”

In addition to Whitesides, executives from most of the key companies involved in the emerging commercial space industry are scheduled to address the symposium, attended by some 300 people. Representatives from NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies are also on the speaker list.

“We bring the three major segments of the space industry – government, academia and industry – through this conference,” said Patricia Hynes, director of the Space Grant Consortium at New Mexico State University, which launched the event in 2004. “It offers the chance for face-to-face networking and idea-sharing among key players in commercial space to help build collaboration.”

George Sowers, vice president for strategic architecture at United Launch Alliance – a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and the Boeing Co. – said the symposium is critical for uniting the space community.

“Other conferences are more about business deals,” Sowers said. “This symposium brings together people with shared beliefs and visions about the future of the space industry.”

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