Officials won’t know the exact reason Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo broke apart during a test flight last week for a while. But, some clues are starting to paint a picture on what may have caused it.
The NTSB is looking at the ‘feathering’ system. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo has two pieces on the back of the vehicle that act as ‘feathers.’ These two pieces become perpendicular to the spaceship and help slow its descent towards Earth.
According to the NTSB, the feather lock-unlock lever was prematurely moved from a locked position to an unlocked position. The NTSB also said this lever should not be moved until a separate feathering handle is activated, which never happened.
You can see how this ‘feathering’ system works in the video below.
“The feathers moved into the deploy position, and two seconds later, we saw disintegration,” NTSB acting Chairman Christopher Hart said in a news conference.
Hart was quick to point out that how the feather lock-unlock lever was moved is unknown. It could be pilot error, a mechanical problem or even a completely different reason caused the spacecraft to break up in the skies above the Mojave desert.
The news about the feathering system is “a statement of fact and not a statement of cause,” Hart said. “We are a long way from finding cause. We still have months and months of investigation to do.”
SpaceShipTwo’s engine and fuel tanks have also been located according to Hart. Both showed no signs of explosion.
“The fuel tanks were found intact, with no indication of breach or burn-through, and so was the engine as well,” Hart said.
Virgin Galactic remains committed in pushing the final frontier.
“At Virgin Galactic, we are dedicated to opening the space frontier, while keeping safety as our ‘North Star,’” reads a statement from Virgin Galactic officials.
“Just like early air or sea travel, it is hard and complicated, but we believe that a thriving commercial space industry will have far reaching benefits for humanity, technology and research for generations to come.”
Virgin Galactic and the NTSB will figure out what happened. These test flights are monitored extremely closely, and investigators will have tons of data and footage to pin down exactly what caused the spacecraft to breakup.