This February, the Spaceship Company and its sister entity, Virgin Galactic, moved one step closer to commercial success. As the company’s “human spaceflight system” lifted off from the Mojave Air and Space Port, the 140-foot-long wingspan of the VMS Eve carrier plane seemed poised to provide maximum lift at high altitude. Hanging between its twin fuselages, SpaceShipTwo’s smaller, twintailed configuration looked primed to dart toward the sun. At more than 13,000 meters (nearly 43,000 feet), SpaceShipTwo dropped from the mothership, falling until its hybrid rocket motor fired. As the ship vaulted vertically upward, the desert floor seemed to shrink away, the increasingly dark sky punctuated by orange exhaust flames. Moving at greater than three times the speed of sound, the ship—christened VSS Unity— soared to just shy of 90 kilometers (nearly 56 miles) above the earth’s surface. It had reached the beginning of space.
At altitude, the pilots prepared for the return trip. A “feather system” raised the tail booms to create drag and slow the ship as it hurtled home. As the descent reached 50,000 feet and the atmosphere began to cut the vehicle’s speed, the tail booms were lowered, returning to their normal position. Gliding toward the runway, the craft’s two pilots brought Unity home. This seamless trip was the craft’s highest and fastest to date and the first to carry an additional crew member. Founder Richard Branson had moved one step closer to his goal of fielding “the first spaceship built for regular passenger service to put humans into space.” Its continued success rests on thousands of parts working precisely and in sync. Enter Hexagon | NovAtel.
Tech Takes Flight
Nearly 1,500 miles separate SpaceShipTwo’s hangar and the NovAtel Calgary, Alberta, Canada office. Yet the collaboration between the two forward-thinking companies is far closer than that, as representatives from both operations explained. The Spaceship Company has used NovAtel equipment “since the beginning,” Director of Avionics Engineering James Flynn said. “During the flight test phase, it was crucial in providing data we need to go fly. The NovAtel system remains critical because we need to ensure we can navigate to the correct position.”
Flynn was speaking from the FAITH Hangar—the acronym stands for Final Assembly, Integration and Test Hangar. “That gives us very close access to the ships, so we can interact with the maintainers and operators of the vehicles,” he said. As he spoke, Unity sat just 50 or 60 feet from his office, awaiting its next journey.
During his seven-year tenure at The Spaceship Company, Flynn has developed avionics hardware and software for both of the project’s vehicles; he also was a flight test engineer on WhiteKnightTwo, the carrier plane. He outlined how NovAtel systems support the program’s progress.
“We use the NovAtel OEM638™ for our inertial navigation system. It provides positioning, velocity and attitude using GPS [Global Positioning System] and inertial. It is the heart of the system. Flynn praised his NovAtel partners to the north. “James Chan, our technical counterpart in Calgary, and others offer lots of good support.”
Speaking from Calgary, Chan, a NovAtel Applications Engineer since his May 2016 arrival at the company, expanded on the solutions NovAtel brings to the quest for space success. “A customer call when I first started ballooned into a really cool application and deep integration,” he said, his voice brimming with engineering enthusiasm. “It’s on a very detailed technical level; I can be nerdy about it.”
Avionics Integration Engineer Keven Lenahan was with Flynn in the hangar, and he seconded the importance of NovAtel’s software. “We are a glider when we land,” said Lenahan, who, during almost four years with The Spaceship Company and Virgin Galactic, has worked on mission control support, avionics integration and testing, and payload power systems development. “The precision of the system is very important. NovAtel precision data, when coupled with our displays and guidance system, aid our pilots in smoothly landing. It’s pretty impressive.” Flynn agreed. “It’s the whole system packaged into one. We could do the same thing with multiple equipment, but they have it all.
“These systems are very complicated and they’re the experts,” Flynn said about his NovAtel colleagues. “They help us with complicated data. And when we requested an update, NovAtel was extremely responsive.”