Like after all aircraft accidents, an investigation starts as to what actually caused the crash. Was it a design flaw or pilot error or a combination of both? I do think that no matter the outcome. lessons need to be learnt, things need to change and we need to perfect the aircraft and procedures. Test flying is a risky business and pilots have lost lives, but things have been learnt along the way.
So far US investigators say that a function designed to help Virgin Galactic’s crashed space plane descend deployed early during the accident that killed one of its pilots on Friday – and that the craft’s fuel tanks and engine were found intact.
Fifteen federal US investigators have been combing the site of the fatal crash in California’s Mojave desert, as questions surfaced about the unconventional fuel propulsion system used to blast the craft up to space.
And the head of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the agency leading the examination of the crash, said on Sunday they had recovered the fuel tanks and engine, which indicated no explosion.
SpaceShipTwo (SS2), the plane on which the Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson has pinned his hopes of sending commercial passengers to the edge of space at a cost of $250,000 (£156,000) each, broke up during a test flight at about 45,000ft on Friday. The pilot, Peter Siebold 43, managed to parachute to the ground and was described as alert though with serious injuries; the co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, 39, was killed.
Investigators have warned it could take up to a year for the full report into the crash to be completed. One area of inquiry that has already been flagged up is the relatively new hybrid propulsion system that was used in Friday’s flight: nitrous oxide and plastic fuel, in contrast to the carbon-based fuels that have powered most rockets for decades.
The NTSB’s acting chairman, Christopher Hart, said that while no cause for Friday’s crash of SpaceShipTwo had been determined, investigators found the “feathering” system which lifts and rotates the tail to create drag was activated before the craft reached the appropriate speed.
An analysis of telemetry and video recorded aboard the doomed space plane has revealed SpaceShipTwo’s novel braking system deployed earlier than designed.
The rocket plane’s rear-mounted feathering system is supposed to extend before the ship descends back into the atmosphere from space, slowing SpaceShipTwo’s speed and putting the craft into a belly-down position during re-entry.
But SpaceShipTwo’s twin tail booms rotated upward seconds after it fired a hybrid rocket motor following a drop from Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane 50,000 feet above California’s Mojave Desert.The rocket’s hybrid rocket motor, consuming a mix of nitrous oxide and a plastic-based solid fuel mix, ignited a few seconds after SpaceShipTwo’s release from the carrier aircraft. Friday’s test flight marked the first time the rocket motor was used on SpaceShipTwo since Virgin Galactic switched from a rubber-based to a plastic-based fuel.
“About nine seconds after the engine ignited, the telemetry data showed us that the feather parameters changed from lock to unlock,” Hart said.
According to Hart, a camera mounted inside SpaceShipTwo’s cockpit showed Alsbury move a handle to unlock the feather system as the rocket plane passed Mach 1 — the speed of sound.
Such action on a SpaceShipTwo flight is not expected until the rocket plane reaches Mach 1.4, Hart told reporters in a press conference Sunday night in Mojave, Calif.
Virgin Galactic issued a statement Sunday defending the company’s safety record and urging against speculation on the cause of Friday’s mishap.
“At Virgin Galactic, we are dedicated to opening the space frontier, while keeping safety as our ‘North Star’. This has guided every decision we have made over the past decade, and any suggestion to the contrary is categorically untrue,” the company said.
“We have the privilege to work with some of the best minds in the space industry, who have dedicated their lives to the development of technologies to enable the continued exploration of space,” the company said. “All of us at Virgin Galactic understand the importance of our mission and the significance of creating the first ever commercial spaceline. This is not a mission that anyone takes lightly.”
The company, founded by Virgin Group’s Richard Branson, said it would not comment on the investigation while the NTSB is doing its work.
“Now is not the time for speculation,” the company said. “Now is the time to focus on all those affected by this tragic accident and to work with the experts at the NTSB, to get to the bottom of what happened on that tragic day, and to learn from it so that we can move forward safely with this important mission.”