Virgin Galactic has completed another successful test flight after a long time. Saturday morning (local time) the WitheKnightTwo carrier aircraft including the VSS Unity space glider took off from the Spaceport America spaceport in New Mexico. After about 53 minutes they had reached an altitude of 13.4 kilometers. There the spacecraft disengaged and ignited its rocket engine for 60 seconds. Unity shot up to three times the speed of sound to a height of 89.2 kilometers and then sailed back to the starting point without a drive.
The Arab-British space company with headquarters in the USA is celebrating this as a successful excursion into space, following a definition of the space boundary at 50 miles (80.5 km) in the USA. The internationally recognized border is the Kármán line at an altitude of 100 kilometers. So Unity was eleven kilometers away from there. As far as is known, Unity should not ignite its engine for longer than a minute even in the targeted tourist operation, which means that the 100 kilometers will probably not be reached. It is unknown whether that will change with Virgin Galactic’s new space glider VSS Imagine.
The two test pilots were CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay. Also on board were two experimental installations that NASA pays for their transport: One was a device that measures electromagnetic fields and is being developed in NASA’s Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The other consists of vacuum tubes with dust; The University of Central Florida in Orlando is using it to study the behavior of small particles under low gravity. In the long term, the knowledge acquired should help in the planning of manned and unmanned space missions on dusty celestial bodies.
Private video broadcast
There was no official broadcast of the test flight. However, the private website NASAspaceflight.com delivered live images. In the video, the carrier aircraft and space glider take off at minute 30. Notching and ignition can be seen after an hour and 23 minutes. The landing of the carrier aircraft controlled by Kelly Latimer and Michael Masucci can be observed after two hours 18 minutes. Unfortunately, the landing of the space glider cannot be seen because the cameraman was unable to speed to the right place at Mach 3.
Virgin Galactic posted a short video on Twitter showing the release and ignition of the VSS Unity. Another short film shows that Cheers from the company’s founder Richard Branson at Spaceport America in the desert of New Mexico.
17 years of announcements
Company founder Branson announced 17 years ago that from 2007 onwards, he would be offering commercial flights that will take you into space for a few minutes. Hundreds of people have already booked or at least made a down payment. Several start dates have passed unfulfilled. The decades of waiting led to some cancellations, but around 600 applicants have not yet asked for their money back.
After the company had initially started the test program in California, the tourist flights are to start from Spaceport America, where Virgin Galactic rents a terminal. After a canceled flight in December and two postponed test flight dates, a test flight from New Mexico has now been successful for the first time.
Before that, the last successful test flight was in February 2019, at that time over California. The next test flight is to take place with four employees as passengers, and Branson would like to board himself the next time but one. If everything goes well, the first commercial flight on behalf of and with soldiers from the Italian Air Force will follow. This would be followed by the long-promised promotion of wealthy adventurers next year. First, however, Virgin Galactic has to evaluate the data from the test flight on Saturday.