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SpaceShipTwo achieves another feat, makes first 'feathered' flight

MOJAVE, CALIFORNIA (BNS): In yet another successful display of its flying feat, US private firm Virgin Galactic’s commercial spacecraft SpaceShipTwo has made its first “feathered” flight.

In the latest test on Wednesday, which is the third in less than two weeks, the spacecraft demonstrated its unique reentry in ‘feather’ configuration for the first time, the craft's manufacturer said.

During the test, the SpaceShipTwo, named VSS Enterprise, attached to its mothership carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, VMS Eve, took off from the Mojave Air and Spaceport at 6:43AM local time.

After a 45 minute climb to the desired altitude of 51,500 feet, the spaceship was released cleanly from VMS Eve and established a stable glide profile before deploying, for the first time, its re-entry or “feathered” configuration by rotating the tail section of the vehicle upwards to a 65 degree angle to the fuselage.

It remained in this configuration with the vehicle’s body at a level pitch for approximately 1 minute and 15 seconds whilst descending, almost vertically, at around 15,500 feet per minute, slowed by the powerful shuttlecock-like drag created by the raised tail section, Virgin Galactic said.

At around 33,500 feet the pilots reconfigured the spaceship to its normal glide mode and executed a smooth runway touch down, approximately 11 minutes and 5 seconds after its release from VMS Eve.

This latest flying feat will make the spacecraft’s reentry into Earth’s atmosphere easy and safe, according to the company.

Re-entry of a spacecraft in feather 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 company said.

The combination of high drag and low weight mean that the skin temperature of the vehicle 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, the US space firm said.

Wednesday’s test flight was the seventh solo flight for VSS Enterprise since its public roll-out in December 2009.

The commercial spacecraft had achieved another milestone by logging its longest ever piloted glide flight last month.

SpaceShipTwo has been designed to ferry tourists to outer space.

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