Home Science & Cosmos Virgin Galactic to launch spaceplane VSS Unity as early as next week

Virgin Galactic to launch spaceplane VSS Unity as early as next week


Virgin Galactic is set to launch its VSS Unity space plane as early as next week – this will be the first flight since coronavirus restrictions were introduced in New Mexico.

The flight will launch on or after December 11 from Spaceport America, New Mexico and will see two pilots and an experimental payload for NASA sent into space.

This is the first of three flights scheduled to operate between now and the end of March 2021 – the next will go into space with a crew of Virgin Galactic mission specialists, and the final will carry paying passengers, including Sir Richard Branson. 

The flight will be operated by essential personnel only – no guests or media onsite – due to social distancing measures aimed at reducing the spread of coronavirus.

It should fly on December 11, if weather conditions are good and the mothership and VSS Unity are ‘technically ready’, but it could go at any point after that date.

The flight will launch on or after December 11 from Spaceport America, New Mexico and will include two pilots and an experimental payload for NASA

This flight expects to fulfil a number of objectives set by the Virgin Galactic development team in preparation for taking paying customers to the edge of space.

These including testing elements of the customer cabin as well as assessing the upgraded horizontal stabilisers and flight controls during boost. 

If it all goes to plan it will be the first human spaceflight to depart from New Mexico and the sixth flight for pilot CJ Sturckrow – who will also become hte first person to have flown to space from three different US states.

CJ will head to space seated alongside chief pilot Dave Mackay – it will just be the two of them but the following flight will also include passengers in the cabin. 

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This flight expects to fulfil a number of objectives set by the Virgin Galactic development team in preparation for taking paying customers to the edge of space

‘While we are planning for CJ and Dave to reach space, if test conditions on the day suggest a shorter burn, that’s fine and we’ll return to fly again soon,’ said Virgin Galactic president of space missions, Mike Moses in a blog post. 

‘The spaceflight system is designed for rapid commercial turnaround, so it is much better to stay on the side of caution and return to base to understand the data and prepare for another test flight.’

It will be a very different experience compared to pervious launches, according to Virgin Galactic – no fanfare, guests or press due to Covid-19 restrictions.

‘The operational footprint at our New Mexico facilities has been further minimised in the past two weeks,’ a Virgin Galactic spokesperson said in a statement. 

‘Only essential staff will be onsite to support the pre-flight operations ahead of the flight and the day of flight.’

Virgin Galactic CEO, Michael Colglazier, said safety is the core priority for this and all flights operated by the space liners.

He said despite the required restrictions, they were committed to completing the first ‘powered flight in New Mexico’ of VSS Unity and the mothership.

‘In accordance with local government guidelines and safety protocols, we have minimised the number of people onsite to the greatest degree possible. 

‘While on this occasion no media or guests will be allowed onsite, our team will endeavour to capture and share the beautiful images with the world after the flight has been completed,’ he added. 

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It will be a very different experience compared to pervious launches, according to Virgin Galactic – no fanfare, guests or press due to Covid-19 restrictions

It is hoped the flight will provide some of the final pieces of data needed for Virgin Galactic to close the last remaining verification reports required by the FAA. 

‘Upon successful completion of this flight, and data review, we will proceed to the next phase of testing, where we will fly four mission specialists in the cabin to test and refine the equipment, procedures, training and overall experience,’ Moses said. 

The flight will also carry payloads as part of the NASA Flight Opportunities Program – set up to test potential technologies for space exploration on commercial flights.

UPCOMING FLIGHTS FOR VIRGIN GALACTIC VSS UNITY 

VSS Unity is close to being confirmed ready for commercial operations.

It has a few more flight tests to conduct – including of the cabin – before it is ready to take customers.

The next flight should launch before Christmas – as early as December 11.

This will feature just the two pilots and nobody inside the cabin.

However it will feature a NASA payload including an unnamed experiment.

The next flight will see four flight specialists go up inside the cabin – alongside the pilots in the cockpit.

They will test all aspects of the passenger space and seats and that flight will launch before the end of the first quarter 2021.

The third of the flights will include Richard Branson and other paying passengers inside the cabin.

That flight will go to the edge of space before the end of March 2021. 

Part of the mission objective for NASA is to invest in the growth of the US commercial spaceflight industry and help with the rapid demonstration of ‘promising technologies’ for discovery at the same time.

‘These flight tests take technologies from ground-based laboratories into relevant environments to increase technology readiness and validate feasibility while reducing the costs and technical risks of future missions,’ NASA said.

Virgin Galactic has been selected as a partner with NASA to carry future payloads as part of the programme over the course of the next three years.  

Through this contract, Virgin Galactic provide regular access to the reduced gravity environment for NASA payloads – the idea is that it will enable the agency to rapidly test technologies for future space exploration. 

NASA has been on the leading edge of commercial suborbital spaceflight – utilising commercial platforms early and often through its successful Flight Opportunities program (FOP). 

Virgin Galactic has flown NASA payloads on previous spaceflights and will fly more on the next spaceflight – this is a new, formal agreement to provide services.

‘The continued and expanding partnership with NASA to utilize commercial suborbital platforms such as SpaceShipTwo are exciting developments for the industry,’ a Virgin Galactic spokesperson said. 

‘Earlier this year NASA announced their intention to utilize suborbital spaceflight into their professional astronaut training and expanded their program to fund future human tended research flights.’

This could see Virgin Galactic and other future suborbital providers take trainee astronauts to the edge of space as part of the wider NASA training programme.

‘The continued use of suborbital spaceflight to further technological advancement and space exploration for the agency has an exciting journey ahead,’ Virgin said.

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It is hoped the flight will provide some of the final pieces of data needed for Virgin Galactic to close the last remaining verification reports required by the FAA

Virgin Galactic will also fly planetary scientist Alan Stern into space as part of a research agreement – he will oversee two different experiments while on board to take advantage of the brief stay in the low gravity environment.

His proposal to take an experiment to space with Virgin Galactic was funded by NASA as part of a mission to send researchers up with their work.

One experiment will see him use a low-light camera to see how well scientists can observe stars and other objects in space out of the windows of SpaceShip2.

The date of his flight has yet to be confirmed but he is already in training on the run up to the flight – including time on Zero G aircraft – also known as the vomit comet – that get seconds of zero gravity through manoeuvres in the air. 

HOW DOES RICHARD BRANSON’S VIRGIN GALACTIC CONDUCT ITS SPACE FLIGHTS?

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch.

Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo.

WhiteKnightTwo is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres).

The first WhiteKnightTwo, VMS Eve – which Virgin Galactic has used on all of its test flights – was rolled-out in 2008 and has a high-altitude, heavy payload capacity.

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Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Once SpaceShipTwo has propelled itself into space its engines shut off for a period of weightlessness before returning home

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space.

Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to build more in future.

Once released from WhiteKnightTwo, SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor engages ‘within seconds’, according to Virgin Galactic.

The craft will then fly approximately three and a half times the speed of sound (2,600mph/4,300kph) into suborbital space, reaching up to 360,890ft (110,000 metres) above the Earth’s surface.

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WhiteKnightTwo (artist’s impression) is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres)

This altitude is defined as beyond the edge of outer space by Nasa.

After the rocket motor has fired for around a minute, the pilots will shut it down, and passengers can then take off their seatbelts to experience weightlessness for several minutes.

The pilots will manoeuvre the spaceship to give the best possible views of Earth and space while raising the vehicle’s wings to its ‘feathered’ re-entry configuration, which decelerates the craft and stabilises its descent.

As gravity pulls the spaceship back towards the Earth’s upper atmosphere, astronauts will return to their seats ready to return to our planet.

At around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres), after re-entry, the pilot will return the spaceship’s wings to their normal configuration, ready to glide back to Earth for a smooth runway landing. 

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Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured) – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to produce more in future



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