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Space Science Technology

Virgin Galactic Unveils SpaceShipTwo 260

RobGoldsmith writes to tell us that Virgin Galactic has unveiled their latest take on manned space travel for the immediate future: SpaceShipTwo. The craft comes complete with matching mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, and will be officially unveiled today in the Mojave Desert just after dark. "Subject to certain US regulatory requirements that will guide the unveiling, SS2 will be attached to her WK2 mothership which was last year unveiled and named EVE after Sir Richard Branson's mother. In the future, WK2 will carry SS2 to above 50,000 feet (16 kilometers) before the spaceship is dropped and fires her rocket motor to launch into space from that altitude. In honor of a long tradition of using the word Enterprise in the naming of Royal Navy, US Navy, NASA vehicles and even science fiction spacecraft, Governor Schwarzenegger of California and Governor Richardson of New Mexico will today christen SS2 with the name Virgin Space Ship (VSS) ENTERPRISE. This represents not only an acknowledgment to that name’s honorable past but also looks to the future of the role of private enterprise in the development of the exploration, industrialization and human habitation of space."
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Virgin Galactic Unveils SpaceShipTwo

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  • Whodathunk (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Saint Stephen ( 19450 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @03:19PM (#30356474) Homepage Journal

    That the guy that I guess history will say started commercial space flight for real, owned a company that used to sell cassettes and records.

  • Left seat? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by NoYob ( 1630681 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @03:34PM (#30356648)
    Looking at the design of the plane, I see what looks like two cockpits on either side of the plane. Now, is this to pacify the pilots so that both are flying left seat or is it to bust the union so that both are flying right seat and therefore neither is pilot in command and therefore isn't entitled to captain's pay.

    Just wondering.

    No, it couldn't be a design feature to carry that little rocket plane.

  • Re:Left seat? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by PhantomHarlock ( 189617 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @03:42PM (#30356752)

    From what I understand, the White Knight II cockpits act as a simulator for the space ship, with the cockpits being identical between mothership and spaceship. One cockpit flies the plane, the other acts as a simulator. I am guessing both can fly the plane in case of emergency.

  • Re:Enterprise, sure! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JoshuaZ ( 1134087 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @03:44PM (#30356784) Homepage
    It is worse than that. The shuttle Enterprise was explicitly named with the USS Enteprise as a spaceship in mind. To confuse matters even more, there have now been official references in Star Trek books and other material to the shuttle Enteprise as the first spaceship of that name. So in the Star Trek universe, the Enterprise shuttle existed but wasn't named after the fictional Enterprise (because Star Trek wasn't a television show in the Star Trek universe). Have a headache yet?
  • by Tekfactory ( 937086 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @03:48PM (#30356838) Homepage

    Well as a recent Slashdot story told, Helium3 just hit $20,000 per pound, the moon has plenty of it. The Rare Earth metals that China is hording are likely plentiful in the Near Earth Objects.

    For each mining venture, you send up a module with two units inside with two solar arrays, a VASIMR drive gets them out to the resources. Unload the mining-module and attach the VASIMR to the transport module, the miner makes ingots which the transporter takes from the mine to LEO, and back. Possibly the VASIMR is always attached to the transporter, and the miner is berthed inside its cargo bay for the first trip.

    My two oddest notions here are using mechanical gecko feet to attach the miner to an asteroid, and then using cutting lasers to make oblique cuts into an asteroid producing cones of ore, and footholds for itself at the same time.

  • by drgould ( 24404 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @03:48PM (#30356846)

    Unfortunately, no one has thought of a way to make money off of it yet. Other than insanely rich tourists.

    ...RIGHT NOW at least. If "insanely rich tourists" are willing to pay to drive down the price of the technology so that I can afford it in 20 years (and all the other benefits that cheap access to space can offer), I'm all for that.

    Hell of a lot better use of their money than the government taxing them and giving it to Al Gore in exchange for carbon credits.

  • Weird looking tails (Score:4, Interesting)

    by EsJay ( 879629 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @03:56PM (#30356948)
    With no connection between the tails of WK2, it looks like it wants to twist apart. Wouldn't that stress the wing unnecessarily? Obviously the folks at Scaled Composites know a bit than me about building airplanes, but it doesn't look right.
  • Nevermind the gold (Score:3, Interesting)

    by istartedi ( 132515 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @03:59PM (#30356994) Journal

    We've got excess gold on Earth. That's why most of it is in vaults. What about something useful like uranium? How much of that is in asteroids? If we could get over the nuclear jitters, then having a rock full of uranium and/or deposits on Mars would be a great thing. That and water of course, but don't comets supply plenty of water? Snagging resources from low-gravity bodies seems like the first potentially profitable venture in planetary space.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 07, 2009 @04:08PM (#30357108)
    How do you weigh helium????
  • by karl.auerbach ( 157250 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @04:10PM (#30357138) Homepage

    I am curious about those "regulatory requirements" that "guide the unveiling".

    Anybody know what that is all about?

  • Re:Whodathunk (Score:3, Interesting)

    by geckipede ( 1261408 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @04:37PM (#30357408)
    Part of the Augustine Comission report on NASA's future covered guaranteed contracts for private space firms. ISS resupply will be a reliable source of business until the station is scrapped. Past that time it's hard to predict what will happen, but one idea was for NASA to put up an orbital fuel storage depot that would be refilled by private launches, again on a guaranteed contract system.
  • Oh my (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Nefarious Wheel ( 628136 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @04:37PM (#30357418) Journal

    Gods that's a beautiful spaceship. I will toast their success with fine wine.

    This is exactly the sort of thing that got me interested in science as a young boy. Granted that was in the day of Von Braun and Willey Ley and Chesley Bonestell (yes I am that old) but the Universe wrote large in my imagination back then, and I wanted something more than cars that tried to look like airplanes. I wanted the stars. There is nothing as hungry as the imagination of the young.

    I was fortunate to work for NASA for a short while in my career, writing software for the Pioneer spacecraft. I've gone on a bit since then, still in the IT industry and laid a lot of networks. But nothing compares with having been lucky enough to work on something that fired my imagination as a boy.

    Did I mention that's a beautiful spaceship? If form follows function, then something with that form has to be awfully functional.

    There's our Orient Express, people. It's a short step from tourists to passengers.

    I salute you, Sir Richard.

  • Re:Whodathunk (Score:3, Interesting)

    by drakaan ( 688386 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @05:00PM (#30357702) Homepage Journal

    ...are we saying that Branson invented the spaceship?. The analogy seems apt to me. Virgin may well be the first company to make strides in mass-produced spacecraft. Only time will tell.

  • by WrongMonkey ( 1027334 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @05:55PM (#30358252)

    nuclear rockets aren't clean enough to use on a populated planet.

    Why does this keep getting repeated? An Orion-type launch would require less than 1000 nuclear devices of about .15 kT yield each. Considering that the US and Soviet Union test thousands of devices with much high yields with minimal environmental impact, using nuclear rockets aren't the doomsday scenario that people think.

  • Re:Whodathunk (Score:4, Interesting)

    by RichardJenkins ( 1362463 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @05:59PM (#30358306)

    Under the virgin brand you'll find at one time or another:

    Music label
    Radio station
    Retail store
    Cola drink
    Credit card
    Balloon rides
    Cable television provider

    Eclectic properties indeed. History will probably record that commercial space flight was begun by a conglomerate with a vast experience in launching new enterprises under its branding.

    Remember how GE got started?

  • Re:Whodathunk (Score:3, Interesting)

    by florescent_beige ( 608235 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @11:38PM (#30361310) Journal

    You do realize that there will be a SpaceShipThree, Four, Five, etc, so long as the business remains profitable?

    This means more than you may realize. While "Vomit Comet" is colloquially expressed, it is essentially correct. SS2's engine has a specific impulse of around 250 which is low (LOX/LH might give you around 450). What's that mean? The mass fraction to reach orbit (propellant/structure + payload weight) of a launcher that uses this type of engine would be in the low hundreds:1 compared to 7:1 for a LOX/LH engine.

    At the same time SS2's oxidizer tank is heavy because the N2O is pressure fed and not pump fed. Heavy tank to withstand the pressure. The combination of low Isp and a pressurized tank means this particular arrangement will never work as an orbital launcher no matter how much it is scaled up. That's not an opinion, it just won't.

    So if a hypothesized SS3 were to be orbital it would have to be a different technology altogether. Assuming BR would be allergic to going the BSR route (Big Stupid Rocket), one suspects he has something air-breathing in mind. The only two things I know of along those lines are SCRAM and Pulse Detonation and the latter might be purely tinfoil-hat. But even SCRAM has big challenges not the least of which is that nobody has made an operational vehicle using one and the best publicly available information on the concept (NASP) hints that aerodynamic heating *on the way up* was the killer. That might be why recent talk about SCRAM is in reference to really fast airplanes, not launchers.

    Apart from that, almost any combination of expendable/reusable rocket-propelled boosters/launchers/orbiters has been thought of before. Early in the Shuttle program NASA looked at a great big flyback liquid fueled booster instead of a throw-away tank and solids, but the darn thing had to be the size of the Empire State building.

    All that is to say I'm curious to know what he has in mind for orbital. Tempered with the memories of Rutan's early days when he was downright religious about canards due to their amazing efficiency, he said.

    I notice WK2 has a conventional tail.

  • Re:hmm... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @12:32AM (#30361696) Journal
    Technically anything over the 100km mark [] counts as space because, at that altitude, the velocity you need to generate enough lift to keep you airborne is equal to the orbital velocity for that altitude.

To do two things at once is to do neither. -- Publilius Syrus