Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo returns to the skies 2yrs after fatal crash (PHOTOS)
Dubbed the VSS Unity, it took to the skies Thursday for a “captive carry,” which saw the spaceship remaining attached to its carrier aircraft, the WhiteKnightTwo, throughout the flight.
The flight took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California and lasted three hours and 43 minutes while hitting a maximum altitude of around 50,000ft (15,000m).
Four test pilots operated the aircraft throughout the flight - two in SpaceShipTwo and two on the carrier aircraft.
The aim of the flight was to capture “high fidelity aerodynamic performance data” on the vehicle, while also allowing the teams gain further experience operating a crewed flight.
VSS Unity has landed safely after its first flight test. Both SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo are safely back on the ground. We’re excited to be back in flight testing. We'll need to analyze today's data before setting schedule moving forward, but we're looking forward to what comes next. Read more about what’s next at virg.in/abKzK Today is an emotional day for our team. We are so grateful to our families, customers, and friends for sticking with us. We couldn't open space without you! #SpaceShipTwo
Today’s flight test of VSS Unity is going very well. Our engineers, mission controllers, and pilots are gathering great data; one advantage of an air-launched system is that the carrier plane acts like a flying wind tunnel, so today’s flight is producing excellent, high fidelity aerodynamic measurements. Today’s flight will be longer than a typical mission to space. One reason for that: by letting the vehicle fly at altitude for a long time, we can test what happens when the vehicle gets very cold. #SpaceShipTwo
After successfully returning to base, Virgin Galactic tweeted to say it had been “an emotional day for us all.”
Today's an emotional day for us all. So grateful to our families, customers, & friends for sticking with us. Couldn't open space without you— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) September 8, 2016
In future tests, SpaceShipTwo will be released from its carrier aircraft and fly on its own, although it is not yet known when this will happen.
Once all the relevant data has been analysed and all requirements met, SpaceShipTwo will be in the business of space tourism, which doesn’t come cheap.
Those interested will have to shell out $250,000 to board the spacecraft, which will be released from its carrier at 50,000ft, according to the current plan.
It will then be propelled by rocket to over 50 miles above the Earth, which is the point where you’re considered an astronaut, not a passenger, at least in the eyes of NASA and US Air Force.
Thursday’s test flight comes just under two years after the company's first SpaceShipTwo, known as the VSS Enterprise, crashed in the Mojave Desert after suffering an “in-flight anomaly” during a test flight.
One pilot, Michael Alsbury, died in the crash on October 31, 2014, while another, Peter Siebold, suffered injuries.
An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that Alsbury had prematurely unlocked a vulnerable braking system, causing the spacecraft to break apart 47,000 feet over the Mojave desert.