Virgin Galactic's new flight test to soar closer to edge of space

14 December, 2018, 05:13 | Author: Marie Harrington
  • Today Virgin Galactic's spaceship made it to a peak height

At the start of the test flight, a special jet carrying the Virgin Space Ship Unity flew to an altitude near 43,000 feet (13,100 meters) before releasing the craft.

One pilot lost his life and another was seriously injured in 2014 after the SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight. It has also earned the plane's pilots, Mark "Forger" Stucky and Frederick "CJ" Sturckow, commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides noted that recent research favors the lower altitude.

The commonly accepted worldwide definition of space is 62 miles high (100 kilometers), but the US Air Force considers the space boundary to be a bit lower, at 50 miles. The plane reentered the atmosphere at 2.5 times the speed of sound and landed a few minutes later. Then, the VSS Unity activates its rockets to push itself even faster, turning upward at the same time.

While critics point to Branson's unfulfilled space promises over the past decade, the maverick businessman told a TV interviewer in October that Virgin's first commercial space trip with him onboard would happen "in months and not years". "We're about a year away from completing the build of the next spaceship", said Enrico Palermo, president of The Spaceship Company, the Virgin-owned company responsible for building the vehicles.

Hundreds watched the space tourism plane take off at 7.10am and successfully land back at the test centre, which Mr Branson described as "a relief".

Virgin Galactic said by reaching this height, the spacecraft had reached the boundary of space for the first time.

Virgin Galactic has said it would use the US Air Force's definition of space as its standard. That means VSS Unity could reach space as soon as Thursday, but Virgin admits that it could take much longer to reach that milestone.

Virgin Galactic could soon reach space for the first time

As well as the higher altitudes, the company said they will also look to simulate the commercial weight distribution on the test flight in preparation for future passengers.

However you measure it, though, the flight represents a triumph for Virgin Galactic - and a stark change from just over four years ago, when the company grabbed headlines for a very different, altogether tragic reason.

"We're obviously hoping for a good day tomorrow, but the risk of a not-good day is still possible", Whitesides continued.

Virgin Galactic's development of its commercial spaceline has taken longer than expected.

After reaching space, SpaceShipTwo began a descent slowed and stabilized by a unique "feathering" technology that temporarily rotates its twin tails upward to increase drag. Three technicians were killed in 2007 by an explosion while testing a propellant system at Scaled Composites LLC, which built SpaceShipOne and was building the first SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic. Around 50 minutes later, it reached space.

Richard Branson is not alone in the space tourism business. SpaceX's Elon Musk recently announced plans to take a wealthy Japanese entrepreneur and his friends on a trip around the moon.

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