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Virgin Galactic's Halloween Tragedy: What We Know So Far

Nov 02, 2014 03:31 PM EST
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This past Halloween, Oct. 31, space faring private company Virgin Galactic suffered a major tragedy, with the fourth powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo resulting in destruction and death. Now, as of today, an ongoing investigation has revealed new information about the disaster.
(Photo : NTSB)

This past Halloween, Oct. 31, space faring private company Virgin Galactic suffered a major tragedy, with the fourth powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo resulting in destruction and death. Now, as of today, an ongoing investigation has revealed new information about the disaster.

What We Know

As of Friday night, it was confirmed that SpaceShipTwo crashed down in the Mojave Desert, above where the Virgin Galactic partner Scaled Composites was conducting a powered test flight of the craft.

"During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle," Virgin Galactic reported in a statement. "Local authorities have confirmed that one of the two Scaled Composites pilots died during the accident. The other pilot parachuted to the ground and is being treated at a local hospital."

The deceased pilot was later identified as Michael Alsbury, a 13-year veteran for Scaled Composites. The inured pilot is Pete Siebold, who is making a speedy recovery.

"Our primary thoughts at this moment are with the crew and family, and we're doing everything we can for them now," added CEO George Whitesides. He also thanked the efforts of first responders in Antelope Valley, where the crash occurred. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : NTSB)

Billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic, flew into Los Angeles County on Saturday to meet the with those affected by this tragedy and to address the media.

"We owe it to our pilots to find out exactly what went wrong," he told reporters.

"I truly believe that humanity's greatest achievements come out of our greatest pain," he later added in a blog post. "This team is a group of the bravest, brightest, most determined and most resilient people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. We are determined to honor the bravery of the pilots and teams here by learning from this tragedy. Only then can we move forwards, united behind a collective desire to push the boundaries of human endeavour."

What Could Have Gone Wrong

SpaceShipTwo was intended to carry two pilots and six passengers on short flights through the outer reaches of Earth's atmosphere, making sub-orbital trips before touching down again on Earth. The idea is to both provide a means of "space tourism" and potentially speedy transcontinental travel.

However, this is still a working concept, with the craft still very much in experimental stages. SpaceShipTwo was twice the size of its proof-of-concept predecessor and was designed as a prototype commercial model. It also boasted a unique type of rocket engine - one complete with a solid plastic-type propellant that is ignited by nitrous oxide, commonly known as "laughing gas." This was a new addition to SpaceShipTwo, which flew with a rubber-based propellant in its three previous missions.

According to a Reuters report, this is likely what Virgin will focus the investigation on, with the help of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). (Scroll to read on...)

NTSB's acting chairman Christopher A. Hart announced the launch of an on-site investigation.
(Photo : NTSB) NTSB's acting chairman Christopher A. Hart announced the launch of an on-site investigation.

Video footage of the crash site released by the NTSB has already revealed that one of the fuel grain chambers looks ruptured. However, that remains purely speculation, and it is unclear if such a rupture occurred before or after the spacecraft hit the ground.

An eyewitness to the tragedy, Doug Messier, managing editor of Parabolicarc.com, told Space.com that it looked like SpaceShipTwo was suffering from serious engine trouble, potentially sparked by a fuel anomaly.

"Normally it would burn and it would burn for a certain period of time," he said, speaking of the other powered flights. "It looked like it may have started and then stopped and then started again."

However, it will be some time before the NTSB confirms any suspicions of the accident's cause.

"The wreckage is dispersed about five miles end-to-end, and when the wreckage is dispersed like that, it indicates an in-flight-breakup," acting chairman Christopher Hart did reveal on Saturday.

He added that the on-scene investigation could last up to a week and the total investigation, until a final report is released, will last 12 months.

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