For our last launch of the week, we have another notable “space” flight. On May 22, the Virgin SpaceShip Unity suborbital plane made its twentieth flight. This was the first successful powered flight of the vehicle from its new base at Spaceport America, New Mexico.
The major goals of the flight were to test the upgraded horizontal stabilizer, collect data for their FAA license, and do a bit of science while they were at it.
The carrier aircraft Virgin MotherShip Eve took off at 14:34 UTC with the Unity attached and began an hour-long climb to release altitude. At 15:26 UTC, the Unity was released to begin its rocket-powered climb to an altitude of 89.2 kilometres. The motor burned for 60 seconds before shutting down, which allowed the vehicle to coast. Apogee was reached six minutes later at 15:32 UTC. After the motor shut off, the vehicle moved its tailfin into the “feathered” re-entry position. The Unity touched back down at Spaceport America at 15:43 UTC.
Accompanying the two Virgin Galactic test pilots were two payloads from NASA. One of the payloads was APL sRLV Environment Monitoring System, also known as ASEMS. Launched under NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, this simple self-contained payload created by the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University is intended to be rapidly deployed with commercial off-the-shelf electromagnetic field measurement devices for use on suborbital reusable launch vehicles. It weighs 5.5 kilograms — about three two-liter soda bottles — and contains a variety of electronics.
The other NASA payload was COLLIDE, which stands for COLLisions Into Dust Experiment. According to NASA, this “experiment is a modified version of the COLLIDE that was flown previously on two Space Shuttle missions.”
If you’ve ever played around with making your own craters by dropping balls into sand or flour, COLLIDE’s experiment will be familiar. COLLIDE will drop an impactor (a ball) into a tray filled with fine-grained target material (like sand) and use a video camera to record the whole thing. The data collected will help scientists understand how dust, such as lunar soil, behaves in low gravity environments. It will also be used to design equipment and science instruments on the Moon for future crewed missions.
Virgin Galactic press release
PDF: COLLIDE: Collisions Into Dust Experiment (NASA)