Virgin Galactic celebrates as tourism rocket ship reaches space

Branson

Rather than aiming for space using a NASA-esque vertically launched rocket, Virgin Galactic uses a rocket-powered space plane dubbed VSS Unity, a craft more comparable to the supersonic X planes developed by the USA military.

Virgin's VSS Unity suborbital spaceliner reached a maximum altitude of 51.4 miles (82.7 kilometers) during a rocket-powered test flight over California's Mojave Desert today (Dec. 13) after firing its hybrid rocket motor for 60 seconds, company representatives said.

The spacecraft was piloted by Mark Stucky and former NASA astronaut Frederick "CJ" Sturckow.

"We plan to burn the rocket motor for longer than we ever have in flight before, but not to its full duration". It burned for a total of 60 seconds and drove the vehicle directly upward at almost three times the speed of sound.

Virgin Galactic's ambitions to make space tourism a reality were given a great boost when the company successfully reached space, or something like it, during a test flight on Thursday.

According to the statement, if the flight is successful the company will then "start simulating the commercial weight distribution in the spaceship represented by our future passengers".

"But let's not forget that space is also hard and we daily recognise the commitment and sacrifice that has been so consistently shown by our unbelievable Mojave family".

Besides VSS Unity, two more SpaceShipTwo vehicles are now under construction, with the first of them expected to be completed in about a year.

VSS Unity
VSS Unity the Virgin Galactic space craft is hoped to be piloted into space for the first time on Thursday

Richard Branson announced shortly after that he "could not be more proud of [his] team" and that Virgin Group has "opened up a new chapter of space exploration". He would not estimate when commercial passenger trips might begin.

These flights aren't the same as an orbital flight to space - which involves actually sending people around the Earth before coming back home.

The billionaire said he aimed for a commercial space flight with passengers, including himself, as early as March next year.

Branson has said he wants to be one of the first on board.

Then, in 2014, SpaceShipTwo broke apart during a test flight by Scaled Composites when the co-pilot prematurely unlocked its unique "feathering" system and it began to deploy. Bezos's venture will use a more traditional, reusable ground-based rocket, the New Shepard, that lands after returning from sub-orbit similar to SpaceX's Falcon 9 first stages.

That's different than a long-held view that the boundary is at 100 kilometres. but CEO George Whitesides noted that recent research favours the lower altitude.

Virgin Galactic says about 600 people have reserved tickets, priced between $200,000 and $250,000, to ride aboard its supersonic plane.

It had reached space altitudes around 50 minutes after take-off, which the company's Twitter account acknowledged with a tweet which read: "SpaceShipTwo, welcome to space".

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