A number of aerospace programs with Antelope Valley roots are poised for milestones in 2019, from spaceflight and satellite launchers to advancements in electric propulsion.
Although development programs such as these are not always able to stick to predicted timelines, given their experimental nature, officials expect to see progress in the coming year.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo
Having reached suborbital space on its most recent test flight on Dec. 13, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo will continue the developmental flight test program this year, with the potential for beginning commercial passenger flights before the year is out.
The spacecraft dubbed “Unity” rocketed to 271,268 feet altitude, or 51.4 miles, in the skies above the Mojave Air and Space Port, crossing the 50-mile boundary considered the edge of space by some measures, such as for awarding astronaut wings.
Additional flights to expand the spacecraft’s flight envelope are still needed before commercial service will begin. Running in parallel with the envelope expansion flights will be flight testing of the spacecraft’s interior and passenger procedures, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said following the Dec. 13 milestone.
The last two test flights have included passenger seats installed in Unity, and future test flights will include Virgin Galactic staff flying as passengers to test the passenger experience.
The number of test flights remaining and the timeline to begin commercial service will depend on analysis of the tremendous amounts of data generated, until officials are confident of the spacecraft performance. However, it is “not a huge number of flights” left, Whitesides said.
The early results from the December spaceflight were solid, he said.
With the capability for a longer rocket burn, “the vehicle will definitely go higher,” he said, but just how high ultimately will be decided by the test program.
Commercial flights will take place from Spaceport America in New Mexico, and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson confirmed he plans to be on board the first commercial flight.
Another Mojave Air and Space Port-based project, the behemoth aircraft that will be used to launch satellites into orbit is expected to make its first flight in 2019.
Stratolaunch was formed by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen in 2011 to provide convenient, reliable access to low Earth orbit for payloads such as satellites.
Its centerpiece is the carrier aircraft, built by Scaled Composites, designed as an airborne launch platform, carrying a rocket launch vehicle to altitudes common for commercial airliners. Once at altitude, the launch vehicle is released and rockets its payload into orbit.
The twin-hull airplane is the largest ever built, with a 385-foot wingspan, longer than a football field, and powered by six jet engines taken from a 747 airliner.
The airplane has performed high speed taxi tests on the Mojave runway in preparation for its first flight.
In August, the company announced it plans to offer multiple types of rocket launch vehicles, including a reusable space plane capable of carrying cargo and eventually passengers.
Initial launches will use Northrop Grumman’s existing Pegasus XL rocket, which has flown for more than 35 successful launches from a modified L-1011. This rocket, capable of 370 kilogram payloads, is expected to be ready for use in 2020.
Stratolaunch’s own Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV) and Medium Launch Vehicle-Heavy are intended for payloads of 3,400 kilograms and 6,000 kilograms, respectively.
The MLV is in development with the first flight anticipated in 2022; the heavy version is in the early development phase.
Lastly, a space plane to allow for in-orbit capabilities and cargo return is in the design study phase, according to a Stratolaunch news release.
X-57 electric airplane
NASA’s newest X-plane, the electric-powered X-57, is preparing for test flights late this year.
Nicknamed “Maxwell,” the plane is intended to demonstrate in flight the ability to use a series of electric motors to more cleanly and efficiently power the aircraft using a smaller, more efficient wing.
Eventually powered by 14 electric motors strung along its wing, the X-57 will be flown from NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.
Initial flights, however, will use two larger electric motors and the standard wing for the airplane, an Italian-designed Tecnam P2006T twin-engine light aircraft. Mojave-based Scaled Composites is handling the modifications to the airplane and integrating the electric propulsion system.
The first flights are expected to begin at the end of 2019. “We have a lot of challenges ahead that we know of,” X-57 Principle Investigator Sean Clarke said in August.
Virgin Galactic’s small satellite launch company, Virgin Orbit, is preparing for the first test flights of its LauncherOne rocket in the coming year.
While Virgin Orbit is based in Long Beach, the company’s rocket testing is performed at the Mojave Air and Space Port and initial launches will take off from there.
Similar in concept to Stratolaunch, the company plans to send small satellites into orbit with its LauncherOne rocket, air-launched from beneath the wing of a modified 747 airliner dubbed “Cosmic Girl.”
The company successfully completed the first captive-carry test flight, with the LauncherOne strapped beneath the 747, and future flights will include dropping the rocket without lighting it.
All these flights will work up to the first launch of the rocket to orbit, expected in 2019.
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