Research

Feathering on SpaceShipTwo

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Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites recently performed their first feathered flight with SpaceShipTwo, which is on track to be the first commercial spaceship. Feathering is a re-entry technique devised by Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan:

Once out of the atmosphere the entire tail structure of the spaceship can be rotated upwards to about 65º. The feathered configuration allows an automatic control of attitude with the fuselage parallel to the horizon. This creates very high drag as the spacecraft descends through the upper regions of the atmosphere. The feather configuration is also highly stable, effectively giving the pilot a hands-free re-entry capability, something that has not been possible on spacecraft before, without resorting to computer controlled fly-by-wire systems. The combination of high drag and low weight (due to the very light materials used to construct the vehicle) mean that the skin temperature during re-entry stays very low compared to previous manned spacecraft and thermal protection systems such as heat shields or tiles are not needed. During a full sub-orbital spaceflight, at around 70,000ft following re-entry, the feather lowers to its original configuration and the spaceship becomes a glider for the flight back to the spaceport runway. #

Though it works well for decelerating from sub-orbital speeds, feathering is sadly not useful for orbiting spacecraft due to the much higher kinetic energies that have to be dissipated.

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