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Virgin Galactic goes faster than speed of sound in flight test (virgin.com)
114 points by andydev 1604 days ago | hide | past | web | 41 comments | favorite



Maybe the physics or the finances aren't there, but I would imagine that an excellent use for sub-orbital near-spaceflight would be to get between two distant cities (Tokyo and London) extremely quickly. Virgin Galactic would seem to be poised to execute on this, if there is a market for it.


The physics aren't bad; the fuel requirements for the same payload for point to point suborbital travel are about the same as a full tank for a 747 from Sydney to Istanbul. You spend a lot of energy getting up to speed, but you have much less drag.

The challenge is making it safe enough / rapidly reusable enough. If you're at just suborbital speeds, the temperature from the adiabatic compression on reentry is intense, and it's a technical challenge to handle the heating either non-ablatively, or ablatively but with cheap, safe rapidly re-applicable ablative material.


I'm signed up for Virgin Galactic and have talked to Richard Branson about this. While they haven't been very public about it, they are absolutely focused on this use case and others beyond space tourism.


That's awesome, any hint on what kind of price range that might entail. I'm just wondering if it will only be available to the super-rich or if it's something a middle class person could splurge on. For instance, I'd easily pay 5x for a near space flight to Switzerland from SFO that got me there 3 times faster (so say $5000 USD instead of $1000 USD) but I couldn't imagine paying space tourism type prices.


This is one of the end uses of suborbital flights: New York to Beijing in 3 hours. The cost is high, but there are people who would pay a lot of money to make that trip in that short a time.


How would it work? The 100 km space hops are puny compared to the 11,000 km distance between Beijing and New York.

ICBM:s do it by flying trajectories with multi thousand kilometer apogees, crossing radiation belts etc. It's cheaper that way than going into a shallow high speed trajectory which requires almost orbital speeds and higher energies. (Even this wasn't obvious before ICBM:s - they worked on atmospheric cruise missiles like Navajo in parallel.)

So, point to point does not look very synergistic with these suborbital technologies. New York to Europe is around 6000 km, still a factor of 60. Transatlantic point to point is far closer to orbital flights really than these space hops.


I wonder how the in-flight wifi would/could be. The sort of customer you are talking about is probably rather accustomed to being constantly connected.


I highly doubt that 13 hours of wifi-connected travel is preferable to 3 hours offline. With a 3-hour suborbital flight you can fly out to Beijing to finalize a deal and be back in time for a late dinner.

If you fly out with your lawyers and team, you could spend the 3 hours prepping, and the 3 hours back drinking the celebratory champagne.


Hmm, champagne. I wonder what the characteristics of such a ride would be. After the initial 2-3 minute burn I imagine they would spend most of their time in free-fall right? Maybe they could serve champagne in those "capri sun" bags: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Capri_Sun_Apple_1.jpg


Assuming you could determine the flight schedule personally, which you probably can't.


Considering that the first ship had 6 spaces advertised, you might be able to determine the schedule by book all the spots.


That route would make a lot of sense since both London and Tokyo are major financial centers.

Tokyo - Frankfurt would be great as well since (a) Germany and Japan have a lot of ties in their manufacturing industries (ex: autos) and (b) since Frankfurt is the international air-travel hub of Europe.


Both Hong Kong and Singapore are larger financial centers than Tokyo. I agree about Frankfurt -- in Europe, Geneva, Zurich, and Frankfurt are all about the same size.


Can anyone speak to the significance of this achievement, considering that reaching low earth orbit requires something like Mach 24?


The headline here is less about achieving that particular speed, and more about the ongoing process of flight testing for SpaceShipTwo:

Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites have demonstrated the ability to air-launch a manned vehicle into space (SpaceShipOne) using this airframe and engine tech. From that prototype, Virgin Galactic is developing a craft for commercial, space-tourism use--SpaceShipTwo.

This flight test demonstrates that the first SpaceShipTwo is airworthy and has engine function. The plan is that after more flight testing, that vehicle will actually carry paying passengers. More tests will need to be done, as the craft will need to fly faster and higher, and decelerate safely as well to reach its targets.

Also, it's important to note that Virgin Galactic's vehicles will not be achieving orbit in the near future. Instead they will bring tourists to the "edge of space" where they can experience zero gravity and look down at the globe.

Wired has a more detailed report that's worth peeking at if you're curious:

http://www.wired.com/autopia/2013/04/spaceshiptwo-first-rock...


http://www.space.com/20870-virgin-galactic-spaceshiptwo-rock...

They hit mach 1.2 and climbed about 10K feet under their own power(46 to 56 thousand feet). So yeah a little underwhelming in what was accomplished. However it was the first test flight of the whole package so it is unsurprising they kept the goals modest.


I think you're looking for the 666 rule which I can't find a link to, but its an engineering rough estimate that mach 6 at 60 kft is 6% of the way to orbit (from an energy perspective). It comes up a lot in back of the envelope type debates about overall system / stage design and performance. Note that 6% of the way to orbit sounds pitiful for a first stage but it actually has a pretty big effect on available payload and nozzle design of the second stage and reusability of the first stage and all that. SSTO is tough, but sticking something close to a SSTO on top of a 666 booster helps a surprising amount.

On the other hand in aerospace its unusual to bolt the first prototype together then just punch it and see what happens, like a drag racer driver. Smallest reasonable steps and all that.


SST is not designed for orbital flights, nor will it used for that, so I don't know how it's that relevant to talk about how much close it is to orbital speeds.


It's far better than 6% of the energy because your fuel which never reaches orbit is at mach 6.


It could be an aerodynamics and materials test. Getting in-the-field data about stability above the sound barrier, and analyzing stress patterns etc.


I'm also quite curious. I wasn't really aware of this project but all in all this seems a lot less interesting than what SpaceX is working on. I know the two have very different goals but this seems like the touristy equivalent of the Mercury program.


FYI, "Virgin Galactic is a company within Richard Branson's Virgin Group which plans to provide sub-orbital spaceflights to space tourists, suborbital launches for space science missions and orbital launches of small satellites. Further in the future Virgin Galactic hopes to offer orbital human spaceflights as well."

So, yes, this is the touristy equivalent of the Mercury program. Then comes the touristy equivalent of the Gemini program. Then perhaps the touristy equivalent of the Apollo program.

I can see how that might not be exciting. There's plenty of people who are excited about supersonic military aircraft than 737s, even though 737s fly a lot more passengers.

As to this flight, it's an integration test. Going through the sound barrier is a crucial requirement for the overall flight mission.


Virgin Galactic is essentially the commercialization of the Spaceship One technology, which won the Ansari X-Prize. The two companies are focused on different by IMHO equally interesting areas. Space X is focused on heavy launch vehicles for commercial payloads while Virgin Galactic is focused on manned suborbital (and hopefully eventually orbital) travel.


If you think that Space X is only about heavy launch for commercial payloads, you misunderstand what Space X is trying to do.

True, Space X has only been rated for delivering commercial cargo. But from the start their Dragon has had a crew configuration that holds 7 people. That's not just for show - they have plans to be human rated soon, and will start delivering passengers to the ISS.

Farther down the road, Elon in interviews has said that his road map includes transporting 80,000 people from Earth to Mars to start a colony. I do not know what time frame he intends this to happen in, but he's said repeatedly that he intends to be a passenger.

For Space X, delivering commercial payloads is a necessary first step similar to how Tesla needed to deliver sports cars on its way to proving the technology that they intend for a mass consumer car. According to people that I know who have worked at Space X, they ignored the Ansari X-Prize because the important engineering challenges aren't getting into space - that part is relatively easy - it is getting into space in a vehicle that will survive reentry at orbital speeds. I don't know if this belief is right, but if it is then Virgin Galactic is potentially headed down a technological dead end.


It's a reusable, manned sub-orbital rocket. That's a new thing. It'll allow low-cost sub-orbital tourist flights. If there's demand for it then it'll be a great way to fund development for reusable, manned rockets.



Sorry, add: "passenger carrying".


Branson is very good at 'blowing his own trumpet'.

All he seems to doing on this project is providing money and grabbing as much publicity as he can, Burt Rutan's people seem to be the ones doing the real work.


Yes, fortunately most of us understand the importance of publicity when trying to build a new business, especially one where your clients aren't going on a ride at Disney World.

I'm sure Richard Branson understands Burt Rutan's contributions. He, however, needs to sell tickets.


To be fair, Paul Allen and Richard Branson are bankrolling Rutan's party.


I thought the pairing was a nice fit. They both have their place and it seems to work to their mutual benefit quite well.


> All he seems to doing on this project is providing money

How do you propose this would happen without Branson's investment? Space tourism seems like a pretty risky business proposition to me, and I think he deserves credit for backing it with actual money, rather than words.


I noticed the youtube video was removed? I wonder if it was a PR decision. Any ideas?

Also, I agree hitting speed of sound is not that of an achievement, but it' something given it wasn't bankrolled by limitless government funding. If they have any mishaps, their program is crashed. Where as government program can have many mishaps and it doesn't have the same impact as a consumer-oriented business.


I think it's just a mistake. The video is still available through their YouTube channel - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pln9JKEjFks


That drop from the mothership seems like it would make a few people sick. :)


In the grand scheme of things, this isn't a very big deal? Actual "space" flight requires many multiples of this speed. And isn't the main goal of Virgin Galactic to ferry tourists into space?


If suborbital tourist and scientific flights to 100 km happen every day, they could conceivably use some technologies and operations approaches that are also relevant to orbital launch.

Think of how you attack a complex problem - you can't solve everything at once, but you try to break it into smaller ones. If you build a complex piece of software, you try various concepts on a proof level, then rewrite them until you have something workable, then integrate that to your big software. If you are smart, you also use libraries that were first started for projects that did something totally different but had to create libraries on the side.

Same here too. In my opinion, hybrid rockets will not be relevant for cheap space launch in the long term, but commercial construction and operations of carrier airdrop, the shuttle cock re-entry and gliding return are something that probably will be fine tuned a lot by Virgin Galactic (operator) and The Spaceship Company (builder).

They have picked a path with a high dry mass penalty (glider wings) and quite a lot of complication (a whole extra aircraft) but they certainly are in a very exclusive club, having flown safely to 100 km, twice, with a human pilot. Their approach makes sense for an airplane company. A rocket company would build a normal liquid rocket engine that could do it from the ground and come back and land vertically again.


I almost read 'faster than speed of light', my jaw dropped...But then it was sound. A great feat, nevertheless.



Not really a legitimate comparison. Pegasus is Orbital Science's unmanned cargo vehicle. Virgin Galactic is building a space tourism company. Very different.


Meh. I saw a guy break the sound barrier just by falling.




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