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spaceSpace and Physics

Watch Virgin Galactic Make First Flight From Spaceport To Edge Of Space

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Stephen Luntz

Freelance Writer

clockMay 24 2021, 14:43 UTC
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unity over New Mexico

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity with the New Mexico desert and the curve of the Earth behind it. Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spaceplane flew to the edge of space, 89 kilometers (55 miles) above the surface of the Earth on Saturday before returning to land. The flight is the third to space by the company on its quest to open the space tourism market, and the first from its optimistically named Spaceport in New Mexico.

“Fifteen years ago, New Mexico embarked on a journey to create the world’s first commercial spaceport,’’ said Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson in a statement. ‘’Today, we launched the first human spaceflight from that very same place, marking an important milestone for both Virgin Galactic and New Mexico. I am proud of the team for their hard work and grateful to the people of New Mexico who have been unwavering in their commitment for commercial spaceflight from day one. Their belief and support have made today’s historic achievement possible.”

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The spaceplane was carried to a height of 13 kilometers (44,000 feet) by the custom-built "mothership" VMS Eve, which at 300 flights is becoming a seasoned aircraft, before being released, at which point the spaceplane's own rocket engine fired up carrying it to space. 

Although the height Unity reached is considered to be space by US Airforce, the mission did not cross the Kármán Line (100 kilometers altitude) recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale as the point where the atmosphere ends. For many, that will be close enough.

VSS Unity is configured to carry six passengers and two crew, unlike its predecessor, SpaceShipOne, a prototype whose smaller size limited its passenger-carrying capacity. It will be months before even Virgin Galactic employees make the journey as passengers, however, although NASA experiments were taken on board. Unity flew for half an hour after release, reaching Mach 3.5 before gliding back to Spaceport.

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This was Unity's sixth powered flight, after many demonstrations of its gliding capability. The company hopes to have commercial flights starting by the end of this year. However, previous timelines have been pushed back almost as often as the JWST, with everything from a crash to COVID causing delays.

In a world desperate to find non-polluting alternatives to existing modes of transport, spaceflight conducted so people can enjoy the view, without scientific benefit, will face a lot of pushback. Virgin argues its air launch system requires less fuel than ground-based rocket boosters, while the carbon composites from which both Unity and Eve are made are much lighter than steel for the same strength, reducing fuel consumption further. Such concerns haven't stopped at least 600 customers forking out $250,000  for a very long wait.


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