Virgin Galactic set to send tourists into space this year


Virgin Galactic has completed another successful glide test of its VSS Unity spaceplane, putting the company on track to send tourists into space within months.

The test, which comes more than three years since the firm’s fatal crash, saw the craft manoeuvre safely to the ground from an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,000m).

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has claimed VSS Unity, the second version of the company’s SpaceShipTwo, will take people on suborbital test flights by April.

So far, more than 700 affluent customers, including celebrities Brad Pitt and Katy Perry, have reserved a $250,000 (£200,000) seat on one of Virgin’s space trips, with commercial flights planned for the end of the year.

Scroll down for video

Virgin Galactic has completed a successful glide test of its VSS Unity spaceplane, putting the company on track to send tourists into space this year. The test (pictured) saw the craft manoeuvre safely to the ground from an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,000m)

Virgin Galactic has completed a successful glide test of its VSS Unity spaceplane, putting the company on track to send tourists into space this year. The test (pictured) saw the craft manoeuvre safely to the ground from an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,000m)

Virgin Galactic has completed a successful glide test of its VSS Unity spaceplane, putting the company on track to send tourists into space this year. The test (pictured) saw the craft manoeuvre safely to the ground from an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,000m)

VIRGIN GALACTIC CRASH

In October 2014, SpaceShipTwo – a plane designed to run the first ever passenger flights into space – split into pieces as it fell to Earth over California’s Mojave Desert.

The vehicle broke up after the co-pilot unlocked the craft’s tail wing breaking system early, which led to a sudden increase in aerodynamic forces as it passed through the sound barrier.

Investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said no safeguards were built into system to overcome the error of the co-pilot.

It took two years for the company to regain approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly SpaceShipTwo again. 

Founded in 2010 with the aim of taking paying customers to space and back again, tragedy struck Virgin Galactic in 2014 when a catastrophic SpaceShipTwo test flight crash killed one pilot and seriously injured another.

It took two years for the company to regain approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly SpaceShipTwo again.

Yesterday’s glide test, VSS Unity’s seventh, saw the craft sent up from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port attached to a twin-fuselage White Knight carrier airplane.

Once the pair reached 50,000ft (15,000m), Unity was released for an unpowered descent back to the spaceport.

The test saw Unity reach its top glide speed, hitting Mach 0.9 (670 mph/1080kph) after it was pushed into a sharp descent upon release from its mothership.

In a statement, Virgin Galactic said Unity reached ‘the maximum airspeed we can achieve without igniting the rocket motor.’

‘It’s been a few months since our last flight, during which we worked through a planned period of focused ground time,’ Virgin said.

‘This involved extensive analysis, testing and small modifications to ensure vehicle readiness for the higher loads and forces of powered test flight.

Founder Richard Branson has claimed VSS Unity (pictured at yesterday's test), the second version of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, will take people on suborbital test flights by April

Founder Richard Branson has claimed VSS Unity (pictured at yesterday's test), the second version of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, will take people on suborbital test flights by April

Founder Richard Branson has claimed VSS Unity (pictured at yesterday’s test), the second version of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, will take people on suborbital test flights by April

A carrier plane dubbed 'VMS Eve' (top) carried VSS Unity (bottom) up to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,000m) before releasing it for an unpowered descent back to Earth. The test saw Unity reach its top glide speed, hitting Mach 0.9 (670 mph/1080kph) after it  released

A carrier plane dubbed 'VMS Eve' (top) carried VSS Unity (bottom) up to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,000m) before releasing it for an unpowered descent back to Earth. The test saw Unity reach its top glide speed, hitting Mach 0.9 (670 mph/1080kph) after it  released

A carrier plane dubbed ‘VMS Eve’ (top) carried VSS Unity (bottom) up to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,000m) before releasing it for an unpowered descent back to Earth. The test saw Unity reach its top glide speed, hitting Mach 0.9 (670 mph/1080kph) after it released

VIRGIN GALACTIC SPACE FLIGHTS

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 50 miles (80 km) above the Earth’s surface, an altitude defined as the edge of outer space by Nasa.

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 (pictured)

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 (pictured)

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 (pictured)

‘Within seconds, the rocket motor will be engaged’ and Unity will fly approximately three and a half times the speed of sound into suborbital space, according to Virgin.

‘After the rocket motor has fired for around a minute, the pilots will safely shut it down.

‘Having just experienced a thrilling, dynamic rocket ride, the dramatic transition to silence and to true weightlessness will be a profound moment for our astronauts as they coast upwards towards space.’

‘Today we tested that work by pushing Unity’s atmospheric capabilities hard, touching top-end glide speeds as pilots Mark ‘Forger’ Stucky and Michael ‘Sooch’ Masucci completed a busy test card.’      

During the flight, as with previous tests, Unity dumped 450 litres of water, simulating the shift in weight that would normally be caused by rocket fuel.

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch.

Yesterday's glide test, VSS Unity's seventh, saw the craft sent up from California's Mojave Air and Space Port attached to a twin-fuselage White Knight carrier airplane (pictured)

Yesterday's glide test, VSS Unity's seventh, saw the craft sent up from California's Mojave Air and Space Port attached to a twin-fuselage White Knight carrier airplane (pictured)

Yesterday’s glide test, VSS Unity’s seventh, saw the craft sent up from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port attached to a twin-fuselage White Knight carrier airplane (pictured)

During the flight, as with previous tests, Unity dumped 450 litres of water, simulating the shift in weight that would normally be caused by rocket fuel. Pictured is Unity with its mothership VMS Eve before yesterday's test

During the flight, as with previous tests, Unity dumped 450 litres of water, simulating the shift in weight that would normally be caused by rocket fuel. Pictured is Unity with its mothership VMS Eve before yesterday's test

During the flight, as with previous tests, Unity dumped 450 litres of water, simulating the shift in weight that would normally be caused by rocket fuel. Pictured is Unity with its mothership VMS Eve before yesterday’s test

THE TEST FLIGHT 

The test flight saw a plane, dubbed VSS Unity, sent up from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, attached to a twin-fuselage White Knight carrier airplane.

Once the pair reached 50,000 feet (15,000m), VSS Unity was released for an unpowered descent back to the spaceport.

VSS Unity had 450 litres of water loaded into its tank, which was dumped from the plane – as fuel would be in a real flight.

By jettisoning water on descent, Virgin Galactic was able to confirm handling characteristics as the vehicle’s centre of gravity changes.

Instead, the firm launches VSS Unity and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed VMS Eve.

On commercial flights, the pair will travel up to 50 miles (80 km) above the Earth’s surface, an altitude defined as the edge of outer space by Nasa.

‘Within seconds, the rocket motor will be engaged’ and Unity will fly approximately three and a half times the speed of sound into suborbital space, according to Virgin.

‘After the rocket motor has fired for around a minute, the pilots will safely shut it down.

‘Having just experienced a thrilling, dynamic rocket ride, the dramatic transition to silence and to true weightlessness will be a profound moment for our astronauts as they coast upwards towards space.’ 

Once VSS Unity and its mothership reached 50,000ft (15,000m), Unity was released for an unpowered descent back to its spaceport

Once VSS Unity and its mothership reached 50,000ft (15,000m), Unity was released for an unpowered descent back to its spaceport

Once VSS Unity and its mothership reached 50,000ft (15,000m), Unity was released for an unpowered descent back to its spaceport

When commercial flights begin by 2019, VSS Unity and its mothership (pictured before yesterday's test) will travel to 50 miles (80 km) above Earth's surface, an altitude defined as the edge of outer space by Nasa

When commercial flights begin by 2019, VSS Unity and its mothership (pictured before yesterday's test) will travel to 50 miles (80 km) above Earth's surface, an altitude defined as the edge of outer space by Nasa

When commercial flights begin by 2019, VSS Unity and its mothership (pictured before yesterday’s test) will travel to 50 miles (80 km) above Earth’s surface, an altitude defined as the edge of outer space by Nasa

If further tests go to plan, Virgin Galactic could be the first company to send commercial flights into space.

In October, Richard Branson claimed he will go on a suborbital trip with his company by April 2018.

Speaking at the Nordic Business Forum in Helsinki, Finland, Branson said: ‘We are hopefully about three months before we are in space, maybe six months before I’m in space.’

Speaking at the Nordic Business Forum in Helsinki, Finland, in October, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson (pictured at the event) said: 'We are hopefully about three months before we are in space, maybe six months before I'm in space'

Speaking at the Nordic Business Forum in Helsinki, Finland, in October, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson (pictured at the event) said: 'We are hopefully about three months before we are in space, maybe six months before I'm in space'

Speaking at the Nordic Business Forum in Helsinki, Finland, in October, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson (pictured at the event) said: ‘We are hopefully about three months before we are in space, maybe six months before I’m in space’

Branson has previously claimed he will go on a trip to space with Virgin Galactic within the next six months. Pictured is a Virgin Galactic VSS Unity spacecraft during a test flight in August 2017

Branson has previously claimed he will go on a trip to space with Virgin Galactic within the next six months. Pictured is a Virgin Galactic VSS Unity spacecraft during a test flight in August 2017

Branson has previously claimed he will go on a trip to space with Virgin Galactic within the next six months. Pictured is a Virgin Galactic VSS Unity spacecraft during a test flight in August 2017

He added he would be ‘very disappointed’ otherwise.

Later that month, Virgin Galactic president Mike Moses said it was unlikely that passengers – including Branson – will be on board test flights by then.

He added that the firm does plan to have one of its suborbital vehicles reach altitudes of more than 50 miles (80 km) above Earth’s surface by February.

VSS Unity (pictured during a test flight in August) is designed to take customers into space via suborbital rocket flight, and could begin commercial flights later this year

VSS Unity (pictured during a test flight in August) is designed to take customers into space via suborbital rocket flight, and could begin commercial flights later this year

VSS Unity (pictured during a test flight in August) is designed to take customers into space via suborbital rocket flight, and could begin commercial flights later this year

The new test comes just over three years since Virgin Galactic's catastrophic crash, which killed one pilot and injured another,. It suggests the company is on target for its goal of sending tourists into space by the end of 2018 using a VSS Unity craft (pictured in August)

The new test comes just over three years since Virgin Galactic's catastrophic crash, which killed one pilot and injured another,. It suggests the company is on target for its goal of sending tourists into space by the end of 2018 using a VSS Unity craft (pictured in August)

The new test comes just over three years since Virgin Galactic’s catastrophic crash, which killed one pilot and injured another,. It suggests the company is on target for its goal of sending tourists into space by the end of 2018 using a VSS Unity craft (pictured in August)

Moses addressed Branson’s comments during a question-and-answer session at a commercial space flight conference in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

‘Richard always poses a challenge. He likes to push very hard. Sometimes, I wish he wouldn’t talk so much,’ Moses said.

‘But three months is about right. We hope to be in space by the end of this year. He’s a little bit further away [from a flight] than that.’

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies,  Virgin Galactic initiates its flights via a huge carrier plane dubbed VMS Eve (pictured), which carries VSS Unity to altitude

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies,  Virgin Galactic initiates its flights via a huge carrier plane dubbed VMS Eve (pictured), which carries VSS Unity to altitude

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights via a huge carrier plane dubbed VMS Eve (pictured), which carries VSS Unity to altitude

So far, more than 700 potential customers have reserved a spot on one of the suborbital trips at a cost of $250,000 (£200,000) each

So far, more than 700 potential customers have reserved a spot on one of the suborbital trips at a cost of $250,000 (£200,000) each

So far, more than 700 potential customers have reserved a spot on one of the suborbital trips at a cost of $250,000 (£200,000) each

In April 2017, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic announced plans to launch people into space this year

In April 2017, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic announced plans to launch people into space this year

In April 2017, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic announced plans to launch people into space this year

Add Comment