Virgin Galactic jet

Virgin Galactic to take test flight and move a step closer to tourism space rocket

Image credit: Virgin Galactic/PA

Sir Richard Branson’s space travel jet Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Unity is undergoing final checks in preparation for a test flight from facilities at Mojave in California, a flight that could be the first by the vehicle to reach at least one definition of space.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the company said the next powered test flight of VSS Unity, the second SpaceShipTwo, is planned for a window that opens later around 10am EST (3pm GMT), with the flight being the fourth powered flight for this vehicle and the first since July.

“It’s a day we’ve been waiting for for a long time,” chief executive George Whiteside told reporters at the company’s base at Mojave Air and Space Port.

Whitesides said VSS Unity aims to fly higher than 50 miles, a distance in which Virgin Galactic considers the boundary of space due to its use by the US Air Force and other US agencies.

“At a basic level, this flight will aim to fly higher and faster,” the company said in its statement. “We plan to burn the rocket motor for longer than we ever have in flight before, but not to its full duration.”

Test pilots Mark ‘Forger’ Stucky and Rick CJ Sturckow are scheduled to be at the controls, with Virgin Galactic officials emphasising that there could be an array of reasons as to why the test flight could end short of its goal or be aborted altogether.

“Risk is a valuable part of forward progress and intrinsic in risk is sometimes you have good days and sometimes you have bad days,” Whitesides said on Wednesday. “I think we can authentically say that we’re obviously hoping for a good day tomorrow, but the risk of a not good day is still possible.”

The flight will collect “new and important data points” about the aircraft at higher altitudes and speeds, including supersonic handling qualities and thermal dynamics. The company also stated that how well the vehicle is doing will determine how long they burn the rocket motor.

On its previous flight at the start of the year, SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid rocket motor burned for 42 seconds, while a full-duration burn would run for about one minute.

It reached a peak altitude of 52km, and the company suggested the vehicle could go much higher on the upcoming flight. “At the end stages of the rocket burn in the thin air of the mesosphere and with the speeds that we expect to achieve, additional altitude is added rapidly,” it stated.

Should the test flight be successful, Virgin Galactic expects to move ahead with full-duration burns of the SpaceShipTwo motor, which would be about 60 seconds. “We see this as an envelope-expansion flight, but not expanding the envelope all the way to the outer ends,” Whitesides said. “If this flight is relatively nominal or successful, then we would be, I think, in a position over the next couple of flights to potentially go to a full-duration flight.”

Virgin Galactic’s development of its spaceship had been postponed and endured a setback when the first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, which resulted in the death of the co-pilot.

More than 600 people have committed up to US$250,000 (£200,000) for rides in the six-passenger rocket, which is around the size of an executive jet.

Regarding the process of the test flight, the spaceship is not launched from the ground, but it is carried beneath a special plane to an altitude of 50,000ft. It then detaches from the plane, ignites its rocket engine and climbs in altitude.

The rocket is shut down and the craft coasts to the top of its climb before beginning a descent slowed and stabilised by unique “feathering” technology. Twin tails temporarily rotate upward to increase drag, then return to a normal flying configuration before the craft glides to a landing on a runway.

The project began in 2004 when Sir Richard Branson announced the founding of Virgin Galactic in the days after the flights of SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned spacecraft that made three flights into space.

In October, Sir Richard Branson commented that the group’s space travel branch will launch into space “within weeks, not months”.

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