Thursday’s successful test is a milestone for Virgin Galactic’s testing program and puts the company one step closer toward its goal of ferrying tourists into suborbital space.
Space-tourism firm Virgin Galactic on Thursday conducted the first rocket-powered flight test of its new SpaceShipTwo over the Mojave Desert since a 2014 fatal accident.
The Mojave company had conducted a series of glide tests but had not fired up the spaceship’s rocket-powered motor. The spaceship, dubbed VSS Unity by the late British physicist Stephen Hawking during a 2016 ceremony, has now undergone 12 total flight tests.
Thursday’s successful test is a milestone for Virgin Galactic’s testing program and puts the company one step closer toward its goal of ferrying tourists into suborbital space for a price tag of $250,000. Four years ago, a previous version of SpaceShipTwo broke apart in midair during a powered test flight, killing one of two pilots.
The National Transportation Safety Board found that the failure was caused by premature deployment of a feather system designed to help the space plane re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. The agency later faulted that spaceship’s builder, Scaled Composites, saying the design should have protected against human error.
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Since then, Virgin Galactic has moved space-plane building duties in-house and VSS Unity was built by the Spaceship Co., which operates at the Mojave Air & Space Port.
Around 8 a.m., the company tweeted that mother ship VMS Eve and the attached VSS Unity had taken off. About an hour after liftoff, Virgin Galactic tweeted that VSS Unity separated cleanly from the larger plane and that its two pilots later propelled the spaceship upward by igniting its rocket motor for a “planned partial duration burn.”
During the spaceship’s flight, it reached supersonic speeds of about Mach 1.6, according to a tweet from Virgin Galactic’s founder, British billionaire Richard Branson.
The spaceship landed around 9:15 a.m. Minutes later, Branson tweeted that the company was “back on track.”
“Space feels tantalizingly close now,” he added.