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Virgin Galactic – Commercial Space Flight

Submitted By: 

V.Shalem Pravas


Fig. 1: Representational Image of Virgin Commercial Space Flight


Whoever said “sky is the limit”, was clearly not dreaming big enough as proved by this tremendous pillar of space tourism. The idea was planted in man’s mind when the historic Apollo 11 rocket took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and to the moon inJune, 1969. He immediately grew an obsession to explore space up to a depth which was previously thought inexistent. He then sent the satellite, “voyager” which has now already crossed the boundary of our solar system (entered the oort cloud) late last year, after 35 years of journey. Since then, few people have gone into space to attain the privilege of being called “Astronaut”. To become an astronaut, one has to have outstanding credentials, tons of experienceand rigorous training to adapt to extreme conditions in space. Odysee

When we watch videos of space shuttle launches and the astonishing views of the earth from space, we always dream of ourselves beingin such a place, a place where we feel bigger than the earth, and all the extravagant images that the deep dark space has to offer us. Each and every one of us has at least once in our childhood dreamed of being an astronaut. This dream was first out of reach for purposes of tourism. Later space tourism was given a price of $25 million which was made by a former Microsoft executive, Charles Simonyi to go along with two other astronauts.Sir Richard Branson, self-made billionaire and CEO of the Virgin group of companies, saw a business opportunity in making that dream affordable.        

Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan have partnered to form the company, Virgin Galactic which aims to commercialize space travel, booking for which started at a price of 200,000$ in 2004 and is currently 250,000$ (around Rs.1.5crore). Clearly, it is not cheap, but it is much more economical than the $25 million (today around Rs.150crores) which was paid earlier by space tourists. Co-Founder, Burt Rutan is the brains behind the design of concept of the operating spacecraft of Virgin Galactic. His design, Spaceship One (SS1) won the Ansari X prize in 2004 and also the founder of the company, Scaled Composites. Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites combined to form “The Spaceship Company” (TSC).

Tiers of Passengers:

1.   Founders: First 100 passengers, price: $200,000.

2.   Pioneers: Passengers flying in the first year of operations will pay anywhere between $100,000 and $175,000.

3.   Voyagers: Later passengers will pay a lot less once operations increase.


The Journey

Virgin Galactic, after acquiring the design of the spaceship one, licensed to develop the integral parts of the space flight named, White Knight 2 and the SpaceShip 2. The White Knight 2 is a large dual body carrier plane built to fly at high altitudes which carries the actual spacecraft, spaceship 2 to a certain altitude and releases it giving it lower power requirements than what it would require it to take off from the ground. The White Knight 2 will carry the Spaceship 2 from the New Mexico Spaceport.The journey will consist of a two and half hour flight taking 6 passengers and 2 pilots 110kms above earth well above passing the standard distance to become an astronaut (80kms). Passengers will experience a six minute period of weightlessness floating around the spaceship which has windows all around it so that no sight is missed. During the descent the spaceship reenters the earth’s atmosphere with its wings folded up (sort of a free fall). The spaceship 2 will land back on to the New Mexico spaceport returning back to where it started from. For now, the Spaceport America at New Mexico is the only commercially opened spaceport opened for space travel.Plans for future spaceports in cities like Abu Dhabi, etc. are being screened to turn space travel into a global business.

The WhiteKnight Two

The white knight 2 is the mothership carrier for the payload spaceship 2 developed by “The Spaceship Company” using Burt Rutan’s Ansari X prize winning concept white knight 1. The first whiteknight 2 was unveiled in 2008 and named the Virgin Mothership Eve (named after Richard Branson’s mother). The white knight 2 will disengage the space ship near about the ceiling of the earth’s atmosphere. So, the problems it might have to face are:

Problem 1: An equal mass distribution so that the fuselage (aircraft’s main body section which carries the crew and passengers) of the white knight 2 and the space ship 2 in such a way that too much mass is not concentrated on a small area.

Solution: A twin fuselage, one on either side of the mid-section wherethe spaceship 2 is to be carried provides uniform mass distribution on the top loaded wings. Further, a W-shaped wing section which raised at the center section provides mass distribution as well a good ground clearance required for the mounting of the spaceship 2.


Problem 2: The pressure at such a high altitudes is extremely low (almost vacuum) that the pressure difference with cabin pressure (1 atm.) will create a high deformation force on the body and the engines. Therefore the material used must be strong to withstand the pressure as well as lightweight (low density) so that the engines can thrust it upwards against the gravitational pull of the earth.

Solution: The solution involves an optimum balance of weight with strength in the material selection process. Regular commercial and military aircrafts use aluminum alloys allowing it a ceiling of about 35,000 – 40, 000 feet, but when it came to designing the whiteknight 2, Burt Rutan left all convention behind. As a result, the white knight 2 is the world’s largest allCarbon Composite aircraft. Carbon composites are not naturally found on earth but has to besynthesized artificially using just the right fractions making it a metallurgical wonder.


Fig. 2: A Typical Motor Glider

As a result, the white knight 2 can fly up to 50,000feet above the earth and the carbon composite makes it so strong that it can fly zero-g parabolic paths duplicating the flight plan of the spaceship 2 (a parabolic path will allow the crew to experience weightlessness which is also known as Zero G i.e., zero gravity), and on the other hand it can also perform 6G turns (six times the gravitational force). The Whiteknight 2 is powered by four Pratt and Whitney PW308A turbojet engines. It is designed to carry the 60 feet long by 27 feet wide spaceship 2, having a room of 50 feet in between the twin fuselage along with the W shaped wing, it makes the payload section easily available from the ground. It can also carry the Launcher One payload which is capable of sending small satellites into low earth orbit.


Spaceship Two

The spaceship two will take eight people (6 passengers and 2 pilots) to an altitude of 110kms above the earth. The whiteknight two will disengage the spaceship 2 at an altitude of 15km (50,000 feet), after which the single hybrid rocket motor (the RocketMotor 2) will thrust the spaceship to supersonic speeds in just eight seconds (4200kmph). After 70 seconds, the rocket motor turns off as it reaches its peak altitude. It was first unveiled in 2009 and its first glide flight was conducted on 10th October, 2010, first powered flight on 29th April, 2013. Recently the SS2 had conducted its third rocket powered flight on January 10th of 2014.


Fig. 3: Picture of Spaceship Two


                Cabin Length:                    3.66m (12feet)

                Cabin Diameter:               2.28m (7.5feet)

                Wing Span:                         8.23m (27feet)

                Total length:                       18.29m (60feet)

                Tail Height:                          4.57m (15feet)

The important features of the spaceship two are

i.     Carbon composite double hull, which are like a sandwich structure having a honeycomb layer in between making it stronger and lighter.

ii.    The Hybrid Rocket Motor (RocketMotor Two), fueled by part solid and part liquid. Nitrous oxide is used as an oxidizer to burn the fuel, is contained in a pressurized tank behind the cabin. This nitrous oxide flows out of a CTN (case, throat and nozzle) which made out solid fuel (tire rubber fuel) after being lighted by an ignition system. The CTN system eventually burns out and must be replaced for the next flight.

iii.   Thrusters, which help the SS2 to perform roll, pitch and yaw. They are pressurized containers of air which provide thrust in the direction opposite to the movement needed.

iv.   Double Pane Windows (43cm and 47cm diameter), which surround the cabin providing numerous views of the earth. They are made to withstand the pressure difference by making them into a glass fiber structure instead of a direct glass mold.

v.    Rudders and Elevons, while gliding back to earth these help in maneuvering the spacecraft to make course corrections. They alter the flow of air over the flight surface to adjust the pitch and angle.

vi.   Two hatches, one of which is used for entry and exit and the other for emergency.

vii.   Feather Mechanism, withpneumatic (air pressure actuators) controllers to rotate the wings. During reentry they wings rotate to a vertical position increasing the surface area in the flow direction to increase the drag force. This will reduce the drop velocity, which may reach up to 25,000kmph. The space craft will shift to a gliding position at about 24km to land back on to the New Mexico Spaceport. (You can observe this at 1:46 min on the video posted.)


Fig. 4: Image of Virgin Galactic Air Craft

The current fleet at TSC (The Spaceship Company) two WhiteKnight Two Mother ships and more than five SpaceShip Two spacecrafts (Virgin Mother Ships and Virgin Space Ships)

1.VMS Eve

2.VMS Spirit of Steve Fossett

3.VSS Enterprise

4.VSS Voyager (Named after the popular space crafts from the movie Star Trek)


Fig. 5: Virgin Group founder Richard Branson

Launcher One

With advancement in nanotechnology and electronics, devices are growing smaller and more accurate. Same is the case of Satellites. They are growing smaller in size, smarter in brains and cheaper in cost. The only thing faltering this rapid advance is the way that they are sent into space. Conventional rockets costs millions of dollars and a tremendous waste of fuel and material to send a small satellite. The launcher one was built to address this flaw. It can be attached as payload to the WhiteKnight two. The launcher one can carry a small satellite payload (100kgs) of its own. After being disengaged the rocket motor ignites sending it into the desired suborbital region. The primary burners disengage from the satellite payload sending the satellite into orbit with the secondary thrusters. Operations of Launcher One is expected to begin in 2016. It will open doors to various research organizations and universities to further their scope to send satellites of their own into space. 

Spaceport America

In 2005, Virgin Galactic and the state of New Mexico, USA announced plans of building the world’s first commercial spaceport in the New Mexico desert in state funded deal costing $200million. It will consist of a two mile long (3.2km) runway. The design of the spaceport by the UK based Foster and partners. Its curvy shape and futuristic interiors provide to the enthrallment of the aspiring astronauts to add to the excitement of going to space. It is designed to have minimalistic impact on the environment and provide an aesthetic view. It is powered by solar panels and consist of environmentally friendly heating, cooling and ventilation systems.

Virgin Galactic will be heading its operations at Spaceport America for the foreseeable future. The Spaceport America is divided into three zones.

i.   Western: Administrative offices for the Virgin Galactic and New Mexico Space Authorities.

ii.   Central: Hangars, Flight maintenance and operations

iii.  Eastern: Departure Lounge, Astronaut dressing rooms, clubhouse, canteen and training center.

Safety and Future Scope

Space exploration has seen its share of fatal disasters and catastrophes, from the Apollo 13 in 1960 to the Space shuttle Columbia in 2003. These programs were funded by government organizations. Space tourism on the other hand will be conducted by private firms worldwide. The major concern for any prospective customer would be the safety of space travel. When a person pays such large sums of money the least he would expect is a firewall to his safety. Virgin Galactic is no less concerned in providing safety than the passengers themselves. The technology they use is selected primarily for economy and safety, for example the hybrid rocket motor is very less prone to mishaps and its propulsion is less violent and more controlled than the liquid fuelled rockets.

Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites are sure that they will be the first to enter into this newly created market sectors after facing rumors of competitions from various other private firms working on commercial passenger suborbital spaceflight.