Virgin Galactic spacecraft broke apart in mid-air before crash: US investigators

Mojave, California: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo appears to have broken apart in mid-air before crashing to the ground, said federal investigators on Sunday.

“The debris field indicates an in-flight breakup,” Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, was quoted as saying to Reuters during a interview.

Christopher Hart said that while no cause has been determined, investigators found the “feathering” system, which lifts and rotates the tail to create drag, was activated before the craft reached the appropriate speed.

The NTSB is leading the investigation into Friday`s fatal crash of SpaceShipTwo.

SpaceShipTwo, a Virgin Galactic passenger spaceship, crashed during a test flight in California`s Mojave Desert, killing one pilot and critically injuring another one.

According to a report published Sunday in the Wall Street Journal, preliminary data gathered in the Virgin accident indicates that a structural failure, and not an engine explosion, led to the crash.

Citing a source familiar with the nascent investigation, the report said video and early data was focusing on “aerodynamic forces” that could have led to its downing.

Virgin Galactic`s owner, British billionaire and entrepreneur Richard Branson, travelled to Mojave on Saturday following the fatal crash to meet with his team and NTSB investigators.

Branson said he was determined to uncover the cause of the crash and said he believed the dream of space tourism for everyday passengers would live on.

New spaceship by next year

Meanwhile, George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic`s chief executive, told the Financial Times in an interview published on Sunday that Virgin Galactic could have a new spacecraft ready to fly by next year.

Depending on what accident investigators find, Virgin Galactic may be required to make changes to its spaceship well before the final NTSB report is issued.

“We would report on anything that required immediate response and should not wait until the completion of our report,” NTSB chairman Hart said.

SpaceShipTwo was in the midst of test flights and was not yet certified for commercial operations when the crash occurred, delaying indefinitely the start of passenger service.

Branson and his son plan to fly on the first commercial flight. About 800 people already have paid or put down deposits for the ride, which costs $250,000.

The craft is intended to fly people to an altitude of just over 60 miles (100 km) so they can experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the Earth against the blackness of space.

US investigators say the powered test flight of Virgin`s SpaceShipTwo on Friday was well recorded, giving them an abundance of information to help determine what caused the rupture.

Mr Hart said the test flight had been “heavily documented” and his team would have to trawl through “extensive data”, which was why the full investigation could take “about 12 months or so”.

The co-pilot who died in the crash was identified as Michael Alsbury, 39. The pilot who survived was identified as Peter Siebold, 43.

Friday`s crash was the second disaster in less than a week suffered by a private space company.

On Tuesday, an Antares rocket built and launched by Orbital Sciences Corp exploded after liftoff from Wallops Island, Virginia, destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station.

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