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SpaceShipTwo unfurls its feathers

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo plane flexed its "feathers" for the first time today during its seventh gliding test flight, marking another milestone on the way to rocket-powered flights — and eventually, suborbital trips to outer space and back.

The test comes as NASA is revving up for the 50th anniversary of another suborbital milestone: Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard's 15-minute spaceflight in the Freedom 7 capsule on May 5, 1961. If Virgin Galactic's development plan succeeds, paying customers will be getting a similar taste of outer space starting as early as next year, at $200,000 a pop.

Today's SpaceShipTwo test flight lasted a lot longer than Shepard's space journey. During a 45-minute flight, Virgin's WhiteKnightTwo mothership brought the rocket plane up to an altitude of 51,500 feet, then released it for the glide. Two Scaled Composites test pilots — Pete Siebold and Clint Nichols —were at SpaceShipTwo's controls.

During previous piloted tests, the craft was simply brought down to the landing strip at California's Mojave Air and Space Port in a steady glide. But that won't be good enough when SpaceShipTwo actually comes down from the edge of space. In order to deal with the intense heat of atmospheric re-entry, SpaceShipTwo (like its predecessor, the prize-winning SpaceShipOne) has wings that can bend into a 65-degree angle with respect to the fuselage. That creates more drag as the spaceship falls back toward Earth, allowing for a safe, hands-free descent.

The spaceship's designer, Burt Rutan, has compared this "feathered" configuration to the design that enables a shuttlecock to float through the air during a game of badminton.

Today's flight put SpaceShipTwo to its first shuttlecock test. For about a minute and 15 seconds, the bent-up craft made a stable descent at a velocity of roughly 15,500 feet per minute, Virgin Galactic reported. Then, at an altitude of around 33,500 feet, the wings were bent back into its normal mode, and the pilots brought the craft down to a Mojave landing about 11 minutes after its release.

"In all test flight programs, after the training, planning and rehearsing, there comes a moment when you have to go up there and fly it for real," Siebold said in a post-flight statement today. "This morning's flight was a test pilot's dream. The spaceship is a joy to fly, and the feathered descent portion added a new, unusual but wonderful dynamic to the ride. The fact that it all went according to plan and that there were no surprises is a great testament to the whole team."

George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's CEO and president, said the successful test "brings us ever closer to the start of commercial operations." Rocket-powered tests are likely to begin early next year, Virgin Galactic spokeswoman Christine Choi told me. Those powered flights will eventually put SpaceShipTwo beyond the 62-mile-high (100-kilometer-high) boundary of outer space.

SpaceShipTwo is Virgin Galactic's marquee project, but it's no longer Virgin's only space venture. The company, backed by British billionaire Richard Branson, has also partnered with Sierra Nevada Corp. on the development of another space plane capable of orbital flight, known as the Dream Chaser. Aviation Week & Space Technology is reporting that Sierra Nevada is planning to conduct Dream Chaser drop tests next year, using WhiteKnightTwo. That means the next few years could see a whole lotta dropping going on in the skies over Mojave.

Update for 1:30 p.m. ET May 5: Space policy consultant Charles Lurio notes that Sierra Nevada Corp.'s plans for the Dream Chaser drop tests are not required under the terms of NASA's Commercial Crew Development program, and thus it's not guaranteed that the tests will take place in the time frame reported by Aviation Week. But that's the way things usually turn out with spaceship development. For example, at one time Virgin Galactic was signaling that powered tests of SpaceShipTwo would begin this year, but now that estimate is shifting to early next year.

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