SpaceShipTwo Shows Off New, Clever Way to Descend: Wobbling Like a Shuttlecock

By Veronique Greenwood | May 20, 2011 12:46 pm

What’s the News: Virgin Galactic’s plans for taking tourists into space have inched closer to fulfillment: earlier this month, the company’s SpaceShipTwo successfully demonstrated the technique, called “feathering,” that will allow the ship to reenter Earth’s atmosphere. In this video, you can watch the ship, designed to behave like a badminton shuttlecock, tip and roll as the pilot flips the craft’s tail to a 65 degree angle, which will brake SpaceShipTwo while it’s still high in the atmosphere. This means the ship will descend slowly enough to keep from igniting as it reenters.

How the Heck:

  • Velocity is the major reason objects burn up when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere—the friction between a speeding meteor and the gasses in the atmosphere, as well as the heat generated by the compression of the gasses as the object bores Earthwards, is so great that the meteor ignites .
  • The Space Shuttle is covered with heat shields that absorb the heat generated by friction, but there are more elegant solutions for flights that don’t need to go into orbit, including feathering, which was first described in 1958. With this technique, part of the craft’s tail flips up to increase drag early in the process, so as it hurtles deeper into the atmosphere it doesn’t reach the velocities that result in ignition. A craft coming in from orbit would be going too fast to take advantage of feathering, but SpaceShipTwo is designed for lower, and slower, suborbital flight.
  • Although this test didn’t involve leaving Earth’s atmosphere—it all took place within—it’s exciting to see that this design indeed works as expected. Since October 2010, SpaceShipTwo has undergone eight test flights, with four in the last month.

The Future Holds: Virgin Galactic has said that they’d like to start taking up customers—each of whom will pay $200,000 for a seat—as early as next year. But numerous other systems remain to be tested, and once Virgin Galactic has it working to their satisfaction, they’ll still need to seek government approval. We’ll see.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
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