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spaceSpace and Physics

Virgin Galactic Test Flight Forced To Abort After Engine Malfunction

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Jack Dunhill

Social Media Coordinator and Staff Writer

clockDec 14 2020, 15:33 UTC

A picture of VMS Eve carrying the VMS Unity in flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic

A test flight of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity that is designed to take commercial passengers into space was aborted after connection to the rocket motor was lost. Despite getting the all-clear just minutes before, the space plane did not reach its destined altitude of 50 miles (264,000 feet) and instead reached just 7.5 miles (40,000 feet) before heading back to earth.

Despite the hiccup, the crew and CEO of Virgin Galactic stayed positive.

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“The ignition sequence for the rocket motor did not complete,” said CEO Michael Colglazier on Twitter. “Vehicle and crew are in great shape. We have several motors ready at Spaceport America. We will check the vehicle and be back to flight soon.”

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The flight was not repeated, but the team are busy evaluating the vehicle and looking for a possible flight window in the near future.

The VSS Unity is carried by a mothership, called VMS Eve, up to a target altitude before the space plane decouples and ignites rocket boosters, propelling it upwards towards the outer atmosphere of earth and into space. Although the plane successfully decoupled, the rocket engine only ignited for a brief moment before fading, leaving the pilots no choice but to return to the ground. A twitter user from the forum NASASpaceflight captured the flight and the engine failure whilst VSS Unity soared above them.

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VMS Eve took off from Virgin Galactic’s $200 million Spaceport America facility in New Mexico on December 12th and was originally designed to test the cabin experience and performance of the boosters in high altitude flight, but the goal was not achieved.

Even though the flight was aborted, the flight could be considered a positive step for the space tourism company, with the vehicle landing smoothly and safely. This starkly contrasts previous iterations of the space plane, which had a tragic in-flight breakup that killed one pilot and seriously injured another. After numerous safety improvements, a successful landing in the face of technical disruptions is a welcome sight for prospective passengers of the space plane.

Virgin Galactic hope to continue surging forward with their plans for commercialized space tourism, with a first commercial flight destined for take-off in 2021. A host of high-flying celebrities will be joining Virgin founder Richard Branson on the first flight, with 600 people claimed to have picked up their ticket to outer space. With tickets costing a cool $250,000 each, only the wealthiest will be onboard, with the two-hour journey attracting some familiar faces including Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio and prominent scientist James Lovelock.


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