Sunday, 24 March, 2019

New Virgin Galactic test flight could open door to future space tourism

Virgin Galactic could soon reach space for the first time Virgin Galactic First Flight to Space Imminent
Lloyd Bates | 14 December, 2018, 09:58

A Virgin Galactic rocket plane blasted to the edge of space today (Thursday) and returned safely to the California desert, capping off years of hard testing to become the first US commercial human flight to reach space since America's shuttle program ended in 2011.

A test flight of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is scheduled to launch from the Mojave Air and Space Port, north of Los Angeles. It's high enough to reach the USA government's recognized definition of space, but not the 62-mile "Karman line" that is internationally recognized as the boundary. George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said after this flight that a full-duration burn would last approximately five seconds longer. The spaceship ignited its rocket engine and it quickly hurtled upward and out of sight of viewers on the ground.

The rocket motor burnt for 60 seconds and the aircraft travelled at 2.9 times the speed of sound in today's test flight.

Virgin Galactic plans about three additional test flights before shifting to its spaceport in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where Branson himself hopes to soar to space next year, the billionaire said in an interview with Bloomberg TV from the California desert.

"Overall the goal of this flight is to fly higher and faster than previous flights", said a statement from Virgin Galactic.

For the first time ever, Virgin Galactic has reached space - by one definition, anyway.

The firm's SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket ship reached a height of 82.7km, beyond the altitude at which space is said to begin. This was the fourth rocket powered test mission of the VSS Unity after only being unveiled in February of 2018.

Virgin space tourist carrier
An artist’s impression of the Virgin SpaceShipTwo

The successful flight is significant progress toward the start of commercial flights that Virgin Galactic promised more than a decade ago.

Over 600 people from more than 50 countries have reserved their places, at $250,000 dollars (£200,000) a seat, on the six-passenger rocket.

The rocket is shut down and the craft coasts to the top of its climb - and then begins a descent slowed and stabilized by unique "feathering" technology.

After the test flight, Branson said he aimed for first commercial flight as early as March 2019. This one will see new limits being tested regarding altitude, air speed, loads, and thermal heating, but will also mark the first foray into space of a ship meant as a tourist attraction.

The flight was also Virgin Galactic's first time to generate revenue, ferrying four research payloads as part of a program co-sponsored by NASA. A typical NASA "sounding rocket", a small rocket generally launched with equipment on board to take measurements and scientific experiments during an approximately 30-minute sub-orbital flight only, reaches anywhere from 30-80 miles above the Earth.

"People have literally put their lives on the line to get us here", Branson said.

After the flight, the Federal Aviation Administration said it would award Unity's test pilots, Mark "Forger" Stucky and Frederick "CJ" Sturckow, with commercial astronaut wings.

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