Branson brings space tourism closer with successful Unity test
06 April 2018
Richard Branson’s company Virgin Galactic conducted a supersonic test flight of its SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity passenger rocket ship over the Sierra Nevada mountains on Thursday, the company said. The successful test comes almost four years after a fatal accident on an earlier version of the spaceship (See: Virgin Galactic space craft crashes in California, killing pilot during test flight).
SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity had undergone two years of ground and atmospheric tests ahead of its first powered flight.
At about 8 am local time, The VMS Eve carrier plane took off from Mojave, California, carrying SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity before releasing it 14,000 metres above ground, Virgin Galactic said in a statement.
A rocket motor then accelerated Unity to Mach 1.87 during a 30-second rocket burn before the ship’s two pilots shut it down. The spaceship reached 25,000 m before making a smooth runway landing, the company said.
“Space feels tantalisingly close now,” Branson tweeted after the test flight, which brings the firm another step closer to Branson’s goals of space tourism.
Virgin Galactic is “back on track”, the billionaire further tweeted. “Data review to come, then on to the next flight.”
While Unity has flown with the mother ship before, and has been released in glide tests, this is the first time it’s fired up its rocket to fly on its own.
The firm praised pilots Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile for the “great milestone test flight”.
“VSS Unity completed her first supersonic, rocket-powered flight this morning in Mojave, California,” Virgin Galactic tweeted after the successful test. ‘Another great test flight, another step closer to being NMReady.’
The Spaceship Company, a Virgin Galactic sister firm also owned by Branson’s London-based Virgin Group, built the new SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, the second in a planned fleet of five, and took over the test-flight programme from Scaled.
In 2016, the space company was granted an operating license to fly its passenger ship with the world’s first paying space tourists once final safety tests are completed.
The company has not yet announced a date for the start of passenger flights but is selling tickets for a ride aboard SpaceShipTwo at $250,000 a seat.
Rides will take passengers about 100 km above earth, high enough to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of earth set against the blackness of space.
Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches VSS Unity and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed VMS Eve.
On commercial flights, pair will travel up to 80 km above the earth's surface, an altitude defined as the edge of outer space by NASA.