Investigation into fatal Virgin Galactic test flight gets underway

Investigators inspect wreckage from the crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo near Cantil, California Credit: REUTERS/David McNew

Air accident investigators have embarked on what is likely to be a year-long investigation into what caused a Virgin Atlantic space plane to break up during a test flight over the Mojave Desert.

The operation is being led by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) whose investigators have been at the crash site in southern California since Saturday.

The remains of the SpaceShipTwo aircraft is spread along a five-mile debris trail across the barren desert. Every piece will need to be collected, documented and examined.

NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart said investigators had their "work cut out" due to the high volume of debris and data.

Speaking to reporters on Saturday night, Mr Hart said the investigation had been split into six distinct groups: Vehicle, systems, performance, data, engine and operations.

The vehicle group is working to document the wreckage, which is spread over a large area. Mr Hart said he expected this phase of the investigation to last up to a week.

He also praised the local Sheriff for allocating resources to protect the debris, some of which lies across a road and train track.

An investigator prepares to bag up a piece of debris Credit: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The systems and data groups are working together to sift through the "extensive" video and technical data from the test flight.

"Because it was a test flight it was heavily documented in ways that we don't usually see with normal accidents," Mr Hart said.

A piece of debris is seen near the crash site Credit: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

As well as six cameras and other instruments on board SpaceShipTwo itself, investigators will also have to scour footage from the mother ship WhiteKnightTwo, a chase aircraft and Edwards Air Force Base.

Mr Hart said there were more than 1,000 parameters of telemetry data on all aspects of the aircraft's test flight.

Sheriff's deputies look at a piece of debris near the crash site Credit: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The group devoted to looking at the engine has already began examining the fuselage and the remains of three tanks containing fuel, nitrous oxide and methane.

Mr Hart said the engine itself was among the last pieces of debris to hit the ground and had not been inspected yet.

The operations group has started interviewing the people involved with the test flight, and will eventually speak to the surviving pilot Peter Siebold.

A piece of debris is seen near the crash site Credit: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

While the investigation takes place, Virgin Galactic and its partners are free to perform test flights as they wish, Mr Hart said.