Virgin Galactic Unveils WhiteKnightTwo

The carrier aircraft, expected to lift the SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket into suborbital space, has a 140-foot wingspan.

Virgin Galactic's White Knight Two

Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo. Credit: Virgin
(click for larger image)

At the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California on Monday, Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson's fledgling space tourism company, unveiled WhiteKnightTwo, the carrier aircraft that will lift the SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket into suborbital space.

WhiteKnightTwo, designed by Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites, is the largest all-carbon composite aircraft, according to Virgin Galactic. Its 140-foot wingspan is longest single carbon composite aviation part ever manufactured.

A major benefit of using carbon composites is fuel efficiency.

"WhiteKnightTwo represents the apogee of the application of carbon composites to aerospace and all of us at Scaled are tremendously excited at the capabilities of the Mothership for SpaceShipTwo," Rutan said in a statement. "I believe the vehicle will be developed and sold for a variety of launch applications beyond the initial requirements of our launch customer, Virgin Galactic."

Rutan said he hopes the efficiency of carbon composites encourages other aerospace companies to use new materials and technologies.

WhiteKnightTwo resembles two aircraft joined at the wing, like conjoined twins attached at the wrist. The dual-fuselage craft will rely on four Pratt & Whitney PW308A engines to carry SpaceShipTwo and its astrotourists into the upper atmosphere.

"The rollout of WhiteKnightTwo takes the Virgin Galactic vision to the next level and continues to provide tangible evidence that this most ambitious of projects is not only for real but is making tremendous progress towards our goal of safe commercial operation," Branson said in a statement.

Later this year, WhiteKnightTwo is expected to begin a series of flight tests in preparation for a launch carrying SpaceShipTwo and passengers. SpaceShipTwo is scheduled to be unveiled in 2009; its first launch date has not yet been set.

Last July, three Scaled Composites employees were killed and three were injured during a test of a propellant system conducted by Scaled Composites at the Mojave Airport.

Nonetheless, there's no shortage of notable people eager to visit space. Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima computer game series, for example, is currently training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, to participate in an Oct. 12 space launch sponsored by Space Adventures, a rival space tourism company.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin has also placed a $5 million deposit with Space Adventures for a ride into space. Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, meanwhile, hopes to get there on a future Virgin Galactic flight.