In a typically flashy ceremony, last Friday Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson unveiled his company’s new space plane that will take paying customers into space in the next couple of years. Called VSS Unity, the vehicle was rolled out along with endorsements from famous names including Stephen Hawking and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.
Unity is the second SpaceShipTwo vehicle to be built, after the first was tragically lost – along with the life of co-pilot Michael Alsbury – due to pilot error in October 2014. But Virgin Galactic is hoping Unity will open a new chapter for the company.
“Together, we can make space accessible in a way that has only been dreamt of before now,” said Branson in a statement. “Our beautiful new spaceship, VSS Unity, is the embodiment of that goal and will provide us with an unprecedented body of experience which will in turn lay the foundations for Virgin Galactic’s future.”
Branson revealed the space plane while standing up through the sunroof of a Range Rover. Jack Brockway
The overall design of the vehicle is mostly identical to its predecessor, VSS Enterprise. It will seat eight people, two pilots and six passengers at $250,000 a ticket, and it retains the same rocket and feathering system to make short hops into space, just beyond the Karman line 100 kilometers (62 miles) up, for several minutes at a time.
After the vehicle has detached from its mother ship, known as WhiteKnightTwo, the rocket engine takes the plane beyond this boundary. The feathering system, meanwhile, with two large fins rotating at 90 degrees, allows the vehicle to re-enter through the atmosphere without burning up, before landing like a normal plane.
The major different between this vehicle and its predecessor concerns when the feathering system can be activated. The accident that took Alsbury’s life occurred when the feathering system was activated too early, causing the vehicle to disintegrate. This new vehicle has a safety feature that does not allow it to be activated at these speeds, preventing such an accident occurring again.
"The accident was a really hard blow, and the team has been working intensely for the last year to get to this point," Virgin Galactic’s CEO, George Whitesides, told The Guardian.
VSS Enterprise crashed on October 31, 2014. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
Unity is the first vehicle made entirely by Virgin Galactic’s in-house team, called The Spaceship Company, with construction taking place over the last few years. Enterprise was made by Scaled Composites, an outside company that Virgin Galactic partnered with in 2005.
But Unity is not yet ready to fly, and Whitesides added to The Guardian that it would be a couple of years of testing before it can start taking passengers. The testing phase will include tethered flight, a controller glide, and finally powered flight, but no timeline has yet been announced for when this will all occur.
Virgin Galactic is heralding Unity as its next big step, though, and it is apparently already working on a third vehicle. The company has more than 700 people signed up to fly, including Stephen Hawking, who provided a pre-recorded message for the ceremony.
“If I am able to go – and if Richard will still take me, I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship,” said Hawking in the statement. “Space exploration has already been a great unifier – we seem able to cooperate between nations in space in a way we can only envy on Earth. We are entering a new space age and I hope this will help to create a new unity.”