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Virgin Galactic crash probe focuses on early tail release |

Virgin Galactic crash probe focuses on early tail release

Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft mothership, which landed safely after splitting from SpaceShipTwo, is seen in a hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California November 4, 2014. The passenger spacecraft dubbed SpaceShipTwo broke into pieces over California's Mojave Desert on October 31 and crashed shortly on, near the port, north of Los Angeles. SpaceShipTwo, developed by the fledgling space tourism company of billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, was designed to carry wealthy passengers on short rides into space. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER TRANSPORT BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
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FILE - 1 NOVEMBER 2014: Pilot Mike Alsbury was reportedly killed in the Virgin SpaceShipTwo crash in Mojave Desert over the California on October 31, 2014. MOJAVE, CA - APRIL 3: Mike Alsbury, a project engineer and pilot, gestures as he explains a potential midair collision scenario April 3, 2003 in Mojave, California. Alsbury is a project engineer for Scaled Composites, LLC which is conducting Detect, See, and Avoid collision avoidance systems for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The company is developing the ability to try and fly unmanned aerial vehicles routinely and reliably in the national civil airspace. NASA, in cooperation with Scaled Composites is testing a system that can identify aircraft operating without transponders. Approximately twenty-two aircraft collision scenarios are currently being tested, using an unmanned aircraft and a variety of target aircraft ranging from a hot air balloon to a high-speed NASA F/A-18 jet. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

MOJAVE, Calif. — The probe of Virgin Galactic’s space plane crash in California hinges on a central mystery: Why a seasoned test pilot would prematurely unlock the craft’s moveable tail section, setting off a chain of events that led to destruction of the ship and his death.

The National Transportation Safety Board was expected this week to complete its initial field investigation into Friday’s ill-fated test flight of SpaceShipTwo, a rocket-powered vehicle built to take paying passengers for rides into space.

The ship broke apart at an altitude of about 50,000 feet and crashed in the Mojave Desert, 95 miles north of Los Angeles, moments after its separation from the special jet aircraft that carries the spacecraft aloft for its high-altitude launches.

The pilot, Pete Siebold, 43, survived the crash, parachuting to the ground with a shoulder injury. The co-pilot, Mike Alsbury, 39, was killed.

NTSB officials have said it was Alsbury, flying for the ninth time aboard SpaceShipTwo, who unlocked the tail section, designed to pivot upward during atmospheric re-entry to ease descent of the craft.

Alsbury was supposed to have waited until the ship was traveling at 1.4 times the speed of sound, fast enough for aero-dynamic forces to hold the tail in place until time to actually move it into descent position, sources familiar with the spacecraft’s operation told Reuters.

Instead, for reasons unknown, he released the locking mechanism roughly 9 seconds into a planned 20-second firing of the space plane’s rocket engine, while the ship was moving at about Mach 1, the speed of sound, the sources said.

The result was disastrous. About 4 seconds after the tail was unlocked, it began to swivel out, and the vehicle was ripped apart, scattering debris over a 5-mile swath of desert northeast of the Mojave Air and Space Port.

A second command to deliberately move the tail upward after unlocking it was never given.

The tail’s so-called “feathering” system, developed and patented by aircraft designer Burt Rutan, is designed to increase the vehicle’s surface area and slow down the ship so it can fly like a badminton shuttlecock as it safely re-enters Earth’s atmosphere from space.

SpaceShipTwo’s feather mechanism had been operated extensively in previous atmospheric test flights, including two rocket-powered runs, officials said.

The NTSB expects it will take up to a year to piece together exactly what triggered the accident and recommend changes to equipment, procedures, operations and other factors that may have caused or contributed to the crash, safety board Chairman Christopher Hart said.

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