Virgin Galactic successfully completes seventh test flight – but when will it start sending tourists into space?
Virgin Galactic has successfully completed the seventh test flight of its VSS Unity spaceplane, also known as Spaceship Two, in the Mojave desert.
The test comes just a few months since Spaceship Two’s last test flight, during which time the firm has made small modifications to the craft to allow it to carry heavier loads.
During the test, Spaceship Two was released from mothership VMS Eve, after which it was pushed into a sharp descent.
The craft, which was piloted by Mark ‘Forger’ Stucky and Michael ‘Sooch’ Masucci, accelerated to a staggering Mach 0.9 – around the maximum speed that can be achieved without igniting the rocket motor.
Richard Branson , founder of Virgin Galactic, tweeted: “Exciting day for Virgin Galactic with Spaceship Two dropping down from 50,000ft straight down at 0.9 Mach – (hopefully) final glide test flight.”
The glide test flight was a ‘dry run’ for rocket-powered test flights in the future, according to Virgin Galactic.
To replicate powered flight conditions, the team added water ballast to simulate the weight and position of the rocket motor.
When Spaceship Two reached an altitude of around 22,000 feet, the water ballast was jettisoned, allowing the pilots to complete the flight and land in a lighter configuration – as would happen during a real space flight.
Spaceship Two also flew with a ‘thermal protection system’ applied, to ensure that heat generated by air friction didn’t damage the craft.
Tourists in space
While Branson has suggested that the glide test flight could be the firm’s last, there hasn’t been any further word on when Virgin Galactic will start sending tourists into space.
In October, Branson hinted that space flights could begin within a matter of months.
In a blog , he wrote: “We are now just months away from Virgin Galactic sending people into space and Virgin Orbit placing satellites around the Earth.”
And in April last year, during an interview with The Telegraph , Branson said he’d be ‘very disappointed’ if the programme wasn’t underway by the end of 2018.
He said: “I think I’d be very disappointed if we’re not into space with a test flight by the end of the year and I’m not into space myself next year and the progamme isn’t well underway by the end of next year.”
Mirror Online has contacted Virgin Galactic about this timeline.
Virgin Galactic’s trials haven’t gone without their issues.
In October 2014, a test flight went horribly wrong, and a Spaceship Two craft split into pieces over the Mojave Desert, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury.
Investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board said the system was lacking safeguards, which led to the crash.
Virgin Galactic had its approval to fly Spaceship Two removed until 2016.