Virgin Galactic plane reaches space, lands back on Earth

14 December, 2018, 09:55 | Author: Kevin Carter
  • Virgin Galactic avionics technician Chris Taylor works on a horizontal stabiliser at the Virgin Galactic headquarters

Rocket man and Virgin billionaire Richard Branson's commercial space programme successfully reached the edge of the world's atmosphere for the first time in its fourth test flight across the USA today.

Today's flight began at just past 10 a.m. EST (1500 GMT) when VSS Unity took to the skies beneath its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane, VMS Eve, from the Mojave Air and Space Port. Eve dropped Unity at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), at which point pilot Mark Stucky and co-pilot Frederick C.J. Sturckow fired up the spaceliner's onboard rocket motor. The Karman Line is the region of the atmosphere considered to be the edge of "space." at an altitude of 62 miles (100 km).

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides noted that recent research favours the lower altitude.

Just after 8:00 am PT, VSS Unity detached from the mothership and lit its rocket engine, swooping directly upward. After a 60-second engine burn speeds the craft to almost three times the speed of sound, it continues its ascent, coasting until it reaches maximum altitude.

Virgin's billionaire founder Sir Richard cried, high-fived and hugged spectators, as hundreds of the firm's employees and family members watched the launch.

While SpaceX has had some high-profile launches of its own lately, Virgin Galactic says Thursday's flight marks "the very first time that a crewed vehicle built for commercial, passenger service, has reached space".

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.

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Virgin Galactic is racing against other companies to send clients to space. This was the fourth rocket powered test mission of the VSS Unity after only being unveiled in February of 2018.

The Federal Aviation Administration's acting head Dan Elwell commended Virgin Galactic on its successful flight.

More than 600 people have already paid up to £200,000 to ride on the six-passenger rocket. 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.

Virgin Galactic's development of its spaceship took far longer than expected and endured a setback when the first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.

Richard Branson told reporters after the SpaceShipTwo test that commercial flights from Spaceport America could start in 2019 after as few as three more test flights.

Branson reflected on beating fellow billionaires and space entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to put humans into space, if not orbit. "What we witnessed today is more compelling evidence that commercial space is set to become one of the twenty-first century's defining industries", said Whitesides, in a statement. Four research payloads from NASA's Flight Opportunities Program were on board its historic test flight as well as a test dummy, making the trip revenue-earning for the first time as well.

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