Virgin Galactic sub-orbital test flight aims to clear the way for commercial trips to space

Virgin Galactic launched its suborbital spacecraft “Unity” on its first crewed flight in two years, carrying two pilots and four company astronauts on a final test flight to the edge of space before customers June Begin suborbital travel in

The sleek rocket plane, tucked under the wing of Virgin’s twin-fuselage VMS ave carrier jet, lifted off from the company’s Spaceport America runway in New Mexico at 11:15 a.m. EDT Thursday. Richard Branson, the founder of the company, was sought out, who was on the board for it. Unity’s last flight to space in 2021.

After climbing to an altitude of 44,500 feet, Unity was released at around 12:23 p.m., with its hybrid rocket motor ignited a few seconds later. The spacecraft immediately pitched forward and accelerated, climbing into a near-vertical climb over the New Mexico desert.

A camera on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft captured a dramatic view of Earth and the spacecraft’s unique rotating wings near the top of the spacecraft more than 50 miles above New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic

Burning a solid propellant rubberized with liquid nitrous oxide, the rocket fired for about a minute, accelerating the craft to three times the speed of sound before shutting down.

With Commander Mike Masucci and co-pilot Rick Sterko at the controls, the spacecraft continued upward on the ballistic track, allowing the four virgin passengers — astronaut trainers Beth Moses, Luke Mace, Christopher Huey and Jamila Gilbert — to enstrap and briefly. Got a chance to take off. Float about the cabin.

Before reaching peak velocity at an altitude of 54.2 miles, Massocki and Sterko, a former space shuttle commander, “winged” Unity’s wings, which rotated to provide the aerodynamic shape needed to control reentry. . The spacecraft then arced and began a long jump toward Earth.

NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration consider 50 miles to be the “limit” of space, the altitude at which aerodynamics no longer have a noticeable effect on vehicle flight.

After returning to the lower atmosphere, the wings rotated in their normal direction and the pilots guided the glider to land on the 12,000-foot runway at Spaceport America, touching down at 12:37 p.m. It was Virgin’s fifth crewed space flight, the third for Masuki, the first for Sterko and Moses and their crewmates.

“The Unity 25 mission was a tremendous success for everyone at Virgin Galactic,” CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement. We built for our customers.

“Our teams now begin post-flight analysis as well as preparation for ‘Galactic 01,’ our commercial research mission planned for late June.”

Virgo Astronaut Jamila Gilbert looks down at Earth from the overhead window while crewmate Luke May looks on to the left.

Virgin Galactic

Branson said: “Congratulations to the entire team and especially to mission specialists Jamila Gilbert, Christopher Huey, and Luke May on becoming the new Virgin Galactic astronauts.”

Thursday’s flight was the Unity rocket plane’s first trip into space since Virgin founder Richard Branson, Masuki, Moses and three other company crewmates completed a dramatic test flight on July 11, 2021.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are competing in the space tourism market, offering sub-orbital thrill rides up and down to the edge of space and back. They also offer space for microgravity research flights with or without passengers.

But the companies have taken dramatically different approaches, with Virgin’s air-launched rocket ship competing against Blue Origin’s more traditional ground-launched rocket and separate New Shepherd crew capsule.

Branson et al Bezos The two flew on their respective spacecraft in July 2021, but a month later, Virgin announced that commercial space tourism flights would be delayed pending additional spacecraft tests and upgrades to the Eve carrier jet.

Meanwhile, Blue Origin has continued commercial launches and has now flown six piloted flights and two unmanned research missions. Both companies have experienced in-flight failures.

The latest Blue Origin flight in September 2022, which carried out 36 microgravity experiments, was damaged. Booster malfunction which destroyed the rocket while the New Shepard capsule landed safely. Virgin Galactic faced a A catastrophic failure In 2014, one of the two pilots of the plane was killed.

Blue Origin has not said when it plans to resume flights, but Virgin Galactic plans to start serving its first paying customers in June.

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