The tricky maneuver of re-entry to the atmosphere is a challenge for spacecraft, but Burt Rutan's innovative "feathering" mechanism aims to make it simple and safe -- and now Scaled Composites has successfully tested the technology on its large-scale SpaceShipTwo. The first feathering test was completed earlier this month, and this week, Virgin Galactic posted video footage of the flight (at right). "It was a really major milestone for the test-flight program," says Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides in the video. "Today we received confirmation that the basic design of the spaceship is solid." Program manager Matt Steinmetze says, "We dropped it, we folded it in half, and the airplane didn't do anything bizarre, it didn't turn upside down. It did what it was supposed to, so now we've got an entry vehicle. Now we can come back from space."
SpaceShipTwo launched from Mojave early on May 4, attached to its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. At the controls of the spaceship were Scaled test pilots Pete Siebold and Clint Nichols. After a 45-minute climb to 51,500 feet, SS2 was released from the carrier ship and established a stable glide profile before deploying, for the first time, its "feathered" configuration by rotating the tail section of the vehicle upwards to a 65-degree angle to the fuselage. It remained in this configuration at a level pitch for about a minute while descending, almost vertically, at around 15,500 feet per minute, slowed by the powerful shuttlecock-like drag created by the raised tail section. At around 33,500 feet the pilots reconfigured the spaceship to its normal glide mode and executed a smooth runway touchdown, about 11 minutes after release. "All objectives for the flight were met," said Virgin Galactic in a news release.