Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceship has completed its first rocket-powered test flight. The successful test is a significant milestone for Virgin Galactic’s testing program.
Virgin Galactic founder and British billionaire Richard Branson wants to ferry tourists into suborbital space. When it reaches a certain altitude, the Virgin Galactic craft will launch into space around 68 miles above the Earth’s surface, before re-entering the planet’s atmosphere.
Tourists would receive three days of training to prepare for their flight. They would pay $250,000 for the experience. Virgin Galactic hasn’t officially disclosed a timeline for its first flights for paying customers.
The new space plane, named by the late British physicist Stephen Hawking, lifted off from the Mojave Air & Space Port attached to carrier aircraft VMS Eve. At about 46,500 feet above the Sierra Nevada mountains, the mothership released VSS Unity.
The two pilots, Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay, then fired up the space plane’s rocket motor to propel the spacecraft to supersonic speeds. Virgin Galactic said in a blog post released after the test that the space plane reached Mach 1.87 during the planned 30-second “partial duration burn”.
The space plane soared to 84,271 feet before it began its return to earth. VSS Unity made a successful landing and VMS Eve touched down soon after.
This space plane has now undergone 12 total flight tests. All of the others were glide tests that did not fire up the space plane’s rocket-powered motor.
This was the first rocket-powered test since a fatal accident in 2014. About four years ago, a space vehicle undergoing testing broke apart in midair during a powered test flight, killing one of the two pilots.
The National Transportation Safety Board found premature deployment of a system designed to help the space plane reenter Earth’s atmosphere caused the failure. Additional safety mechanisms have been added to the new aircraft to prevent the system from being opened too early.
Branson first publicly announced Virgin Galactic’s plans in 2004, but progress has been slow. Another incident occurred in 2007, when three Scaled Composites technicians died as a routine test resulted in a sudden explosion.
Virgin Galactic will need to complete at least six more successful powered tests, in addition to other reviews, to build customer confidence in its program. The company is also building two more spaceships for the Virgin fleet.