Slightly older news I know, but this is so fricking cool that it deserves to be enshrined on every page on the planet.
The basic idea behind Virgin’s spacecraft, which has been successfully flown over 12 times, is that it uses a ‘shuttlecock’ method of slowing reentry. This means that the speed of reentry is naturally controlled by the altered shape, and it has both incredible computer-independent stability for hands-free reentry without trusting crappy software, and extremely low re-entry speeds.
As most space afficionados know, the biggest cost in the space program has been getting a big old honking ship, covered with heavy heat shields and full of massive payloads out of the deep gravity well of our planet.
Because of the ‘transforming’ shape, the incredible stability, and the extremely low speeds that the shuttle can use for reentry, heat shielding can be extremely light and the entire spacecraft weighs a fraction of what your average shuttle weighs. That means that it is both cheaper and capable of boosting much much more into orbit at a time. That means that commercial flights to and from orbit can drop to within the price range of, say, a transcontinental flight.
Talk about a step in the right direction!