The SpaceShipTwo hybrid rocket engine, which flew on Friday with a new type of fuel, was not the cause of the accident that occurred a few moments after launch, said the head of the accident investigation agency on Sunday evening.
The fuel tanks of the vessel and its engine were found intact, indicating that there was no explosion.
"There were no signs of burns or defects on them," said Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, to journalists at the Mojave, California, aviation and space port.
Instead, the video data transmitted from the ship, showed one feature: a folding tail section, designed for easy entry into the atmosphere from space, was first deployed.
As a rule, the folding tail section should not be deployed until the rocket engines of the ship reach speeds of 1, 4 Mach or 1, 4 times faster than the speed of sound.
Instead, the pilot moved the lever from the locked state to the unlocked state when the spacecraft was flying at a speed of 1 Max.
“I don’t think this could be the cause of the accident,” Hart added. "We have many months of investigation to determine the exact cause."
In addition to the pilot’s possible error, the National Transportation Safety Board will consider many other issues that could contribute to the incident, including preparation for the flight, spacecraft design, and safety systems at Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, which developed and made a spaceship. “There is a lot that we don’t know, and our investigation is far from over,” Hart said.
The accident claimed the lives of test pilot Michael Alsbury, who was a pilot of the ship. Co-pilot Peter Sebold, who was able to jump with a parachute, suffered a serious shoulder injury.
SpaceShipTwo took off on Friday morning. It was undocked, as planned, from its launch vehicle at an altitude of 45,000 feet. A few seconds after this, the hybrid engine of the spacecraft was launched, which uses a modified plastic-based rocket fuel formula.
Nine seconds later, the foldable tail of the ship was unlocked, Hart said. After another two seconds, the tail section of the ship was already in a deployed state.
“Shortly after the ship’s tail section was deployed, the telemetry and video data stopped,” Hart said.
The wreckage was scattered over an area five miles north of the cosmodrome.
About a person has already paid or made part of the money to fly on SpaceShipTwo. Virgin Galactic hopes to start passenger traffic next year. The second vessel of the company was built at 65%.