Virgin Galactic just took a major step towards its space tourism dreams becoming a reality, as it successfully flew its new space plane under rocket power for the first time since a fatal crash in 2014.
Known as SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, it was carried into the air yesterday morning (April 5) in the Mojave Desert by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. Once they reached a height of 14,200 meters (46,500 feet), Unity was detached, and its rocket engine roared to life.
Unity did not reach space on this occasion, but it did go supersonic for the first time. It reached a speed of Mach 1.87, with its rocket engine firing for 30 seconds and taking it to an altitude of 25,686 meters (84,271 feet), where its feathered tail design was then rotated to test atmospheric re-entry.
“Virgin Galactic back on track,” CEO Richard Branson wrote on Twitter. “Space feels tantalizingly close now.”
In October 2014, an error with the feathering system caused Unity’s predecessor, VSS Enterprise, to break apart during a test flight. The incident destroyed the vehicle, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury, but pilot Peter Siebold survived.
This flight of Unity had Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay behind the controls. The vehicle has done a number of glide tests before, but now hopes will be raised of it reaching space for the first time in the near-future.
“VSS Unity benefits from all the data and lessons gathered from the test program of her predecessor vehicle, VSS Enterprise,” Virgin Galactic noted in a statement.
At some point in the coming years, Virgin Galactic hopes to start taking six paying customers at a time into space aboard VSS Unity. Tickets cost about $250,000, with passengers afforded several minutes of weightlessness and views of Earth from space before returning to the ground.
They’ll be subjected to G-forces of around 4Gs at times, with the flight from ground to space to ground again lasting up to two hours. Large windows on the side of the vehicle will allow for views of Earth, while they’ll also be able to detach from their seats and float around for a bit.
Virgin Galactic notes that Unity is designed for commercial service, whereas Enterprise was more a proof-of-concept. When exactly we’ll see flights to space begin isn’t clear yet, but with this test flight – the company’s 69th – it looks like they’re at least partially back on track.