Virgin Galactic’s new VSS Unity spacecraft completes test flight

Virgin Galactic seemed to be on the fast track to making space tourism a reality. Unfortunately, that was before the tragic 2014 loss of the SpaceShipTwo (VSS Enterprise) test vessel. The accident resulted in the death of one of the ship’s two crew and set back Virgin Galactic’s plans dramatically. The slightly redesigned VSS Unity vehicle has now made its first untethered test flight. An initial review of the flight data shows everything went as planned, but Virgin Galactic is taking no chances this time.

Prior to the failure of its last test vehicle, Virgin Galactic used it to successfully complete 55 flights at a maximum altitude of 22 kilometers. The aim of Virgin Galactic is to take passengers beyond the Kármán line, which is the barrier 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the Earth where space is agreed to begin. If you go past that, you’re an astronaut (sort of). Virgin Galactic won’t actually be entering orbit—that takes a lot of energy. Instead, its plan is to use a parabolic trajectory to give passengers several minutes of weightlessness in space before coming back down into the atmosphere.

The test flight was one hour and twenty minutes long, including 10 minutes during which VSS Unity was free of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane. This follows several “captive carry” tests where the space plane is not released from the carrier at all. This test flight was also glide-only, meaning the rocket engines were not fired up. Still, VSS Unity flew down for a perfect landing from an altitude of nearly 10 miles (16 kilometers).

The VSS Unity has the same basic design and engines as the airframe as the VSS Enterprise, but it has a modified feather locking system. When activated, the feathering system rotates the wings vertically to increase drag and assist with landing. However, the investigation into the 2014 crash showed that the system was accidentally deployed while the rocket engines were still engaged. This resulted in extreme stress on the body of the craft that broke it apart. VSS Unity includes a mechanical pin on the feathering control system that prevents it from being activated while it is under high acceleration.

The company says it will only begin flying passengers when it is confident it can be done safely. VSS Unity needs to head much higher in the atmosphere to be properly tested. In particular, engineers are going to be looking at how its rocket engines perform in the upper atmosphere and how heat is dissipated. Virgin Galactic doesn’t have a firm timeline for commercial flights yet, but several competitors have picked up steam while Virgin was picking up the pieces. Blue Origin says it will be ready for passengers as soon as 2018.

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