Just a few days after Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed 45,000 feet above the Earth, an investigation has revealed that the co-pilot of the spaceship had deployed the “feathering” system early. Feathering system helps the spacecraft descend into the atmosphere. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) acting chairman Christopher Hart is leading the probe.

Virgin Galactic Crash: Co-Pilot Deployed 'Feathering' System Early

Pilot error can’t be ruled out

After the finding, Hart said it would take months of investigation to determine what caused the crash. But he said that pilot error couldn’t be ruled out. Virgin Galactic’s spaceship disintegrated just a couple of minutes after separating from the aircraft that was carrying it. It crashed in the Mojave desert of California during the test flight on Friday. The crash killed one pilot while the other is seriously injured.

Due to early deployment of the “feathering” system, the spaceship’s rotating tail boom rotated early. Hart said at a press conference that the system should have been deployed when the Virgin Galactic spacecraft was traveling at Mach 1.4. But the feather started rotating when the spaceship was traveling at only Mach 1. Note that Mach denotes the speed of a moving body compared to the speed of sound. According to the video from the vehicle’s cockpit, the co-pilot had unlocked it early.

Hart said Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo released normally from WhiteKnightTwo, the aircraft that was carrying it. The hybrid rocket motor also ignited on time. NTSB’s investigation team has recovered the spaceship’s engine and propellant tanks intact. That means no explosion had occurred. It’s a big blow to Richard Branson’s ambitions.

Virgin Galactic’s passenger service delayed indefinitely

Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, has said that his company would launch inaugural passenger flights next year. However, the crash has delayed the passenger service indefinitely. Richard Branson and his son were planning to be onboard the first commercial flight into the space. The ride costs $250,000, and more than 800 have already signed up.

The two pilots were employees of Scaled Composites, the company that built the spacecraft for Virgin Galactic. Michael Alsbury died in the crash, while Peter Siebold parachuted to the ground.