Virgin's Enterprise Makes First Feathering Flight

Virgin Galactic's experimental SpaceShipTwo, dubbed the VSS Enterprise, recently performed its first flight using "feathering". That means that the rear of the craft bent far backwards to slow it down during re-entry. Popular Science's Clay Dillow explained its significance:

“Feathering,” as it is known, is probably the biggest innovation integrated into SpaceShipTwo’s design. In the feathered position, the entire tail section of the plane rotates upward about 65 degrees, creating a different aerodynamic shape that is highly stable yet creates tremendous drag to slow the aircraft down during re-entry. Though that drag is pretty significant, the light weight of the aircraft keeps the skin temperature from rising too high, circumventing the need for heat shields and other thermal protection.

Moreover, when feathered correctly the aircraft is so stable that the pilot can more or less take his hands off the sticks and let the aircraft work its way through the atmosphere naturally, based purely on its aerodynamic shape. That’s a huge safety feature, as the pilot doesn’t have to maintain a specific degree of entry or rely on a sophisticated fly-by-wire computer.

At the link, you can watch a video of the flight. Skip ahead to 2:30 to see the feathering.

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