Verdict into cause of Virgin Galactic test flight crash to be announced

Credit: Reuters

An investigation into the cause of the Virgin Galactic spaceship crash which killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot is expected to reveal its findings today.

America's National Transportation Safety Board is expected to consider the likely cause of the accident over California's Mojave Desert last October after investigators looked into pilot training, the rocket's design and whether mechanical problems played any role.

NTSB officials said early in the investigation that the co-pilot prematurely unlocked equipment designed to slow the descent of SpaceShipTwo during initial re-entry.

Simply unlocking the spacecraft's brakes should not have applied them, but investigators say that might have happened anyway and that the resulting stress may have contributed to the spacecraft's destruction.

SpaceShipTwo went down over the Mojave Desert in southern California Credit: Google Maps

The remains of SpaceShipTwo was spread along a five-mile debris trail across the barren desert and investigators scoured the area so every piece could 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.

Last November the NTSB said the SpaceShipTwo rocket disintegrated in mid-flight after a key lever was moved earlier than it should have been.

The ship featured two sections at the rear known as "feathers" designed to rotate to create more drag as the ship re-entered the earth's atmosphere.

To allow 'feathering' to take place, two handles were moved - one which locked and unlocked the feathers, and the other which moved them into position.

The board said data recovered from SpaceShipTwo showed that the 'lock/unlock' handle was moved but the second lever, known as the 'feathering handle', was not.

However, they stressed that the cause for the spaceship's disintegration would take some time to ascertain.

Soon after the crash, Sir Richard Branson's company was forced to deny speculation it had ignored safety warnings.

"At Virgin Galactic, we are dedicated to opening the space frontier, while keeping safety as our 'North Star'. This has guided every decision we have made over the past decade, and any suggestion to the contrary is categorically untrue," Virgin Galactic said in a statement.

Virgin Galactic have continued with space flight plans in spite of the crash Credit: Reuters

SpaceShipTwo was part of the Virgin Galactic programme that offered trips into space and back for six tourists at a time. The 60ft-long craft was being developed at Mojave Air and Spaceport in California after its initial presentation in 2009 as the company attempts to turn the dream of commercial space travel into a reality.

Virgin Galactic has continued with its plans for space flight and is now building another craft. Company officials have said in recent months that their commitment to commercial spacecraft has not waivered despite the crash and they expect to resume test flights later this year.