Technology & Science

Virgin Galactic tourism rocket ship reaches edge of space in test flight

Virgin Galactic says its tourism spaceship successfully flew to the edge of space this morning.

Virgin Space Ship Unity flies higher than 80 kilometres above Earth

Virgin Galactic reaches space for the first time during its 4th powered flight from Mojave, Calif. (Matt Hartman/Associated Press)

Virgin Galactic's tourism spaceship climbed more than 80 kilometres above California's Mojave Desert on Thursday, reaching for the first time what the company considers the boundary of space.

The rocket ship reached an altitude of 82 kilometres before beginning its gliding descent, said mission official Enrico Palermo. The craft landed on a runway minutes later.

"We made it to space!" Palermo said.

Thursday's flight takes Virgin Galactic closer to turning the long-delayed dream of commercial space tourism into reality. The company aims to take paying customers on the six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said there will be more test flights and, if all goes well, he will take a ride before the public gets its chance.

"I believe that sometime in the second half of next year … we will start being able to put regular people up into space," he said, describing Thursday as one of the best days of his life.

Virgin Galactic considers 80 kilometres the boundary of space because it is used by the U.S. air force and other U.S. agencies. That's different than a long-held view that the boundary is at 100 kilometres.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides noted that recent research favours the lower altitude.

A jet carrying Virgin Galactic's tourism spaceship took off from Mojave Air and Space Port on Thursday in Mojave, Calif. ( Matt Hartman/Associated Press)

Whitesides said a review of the test flight's data will last into the new year. "This is a huge step forward and once we look at the data, we'll see what that pathway is," he said.

At the start of the test flight, a special jet carrying the Virgin Space Ship Unity flew to an altitude near 13,100 metres before releasing the craft. The spaceship ignited its rocket engine and it quickly hurtled upward and out of sight of viewers on the ground. The spaceship reached Mach 2.9, nearly three times the speed of sound.

The two test pilots — Mark (Forger) Stucky and former NASA astronaut Rick (CJ) Sturckow — will be awarded commercial astronaut wings, said Federal Aviation Administration official Bailey Edwards.

Virgin Galactic's development of its spaceship took far longer than expected and endured a setback when the first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.

"People have literally put their lives on the line to get us here," Branson said. "This day is as much for them as it is for all of us."

600 tickets sold

More than 600 people have committed up to $250,000 US for rides that include several minutes of weightlessness and a view of the Earth far below. The spaceship will also be used for research: NASA had science experiments on the test flight.

The spaceship isn't launched from the ground but is carried beneath a special plane to an altitude near 15,240 metres. It then detaches from the plane, ignites its rocket engine and climbs.

Richard Branson celebrates the successful test flight with pilots Rick 'CJ' Sturckow, left, and Mark 'Forger' Stucky, right. (John Antczak/Associated Press)

The rocket is shut down and the craft coasts to the top of its climb — and then begins a descent slowed and stabilized by unique "feathering" technology. The twin tails temporarily rotate upward to increase drag, then return to a normal flying configuration before the craft glides to a landing on a runway.

The endeavour began in 2004 when Branson announced the founding of Virgin Galactic in the heady days after the flights of SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned spacecraft that made three flights into space. Branson's goal: Open up space travel to more and more people.

At the start of the test flight, a special jet carrying the Virgin Space Ship Unity climbed to an altitude near 13,100 metres before releasing the craft. The spaceship ignited its rocket engine and quickly hurtled upward and out of sight of viewers on the ground. (Matt Hartman/Associated Press)

Funded by the late billionaire Paul G. Allen and created by maverick aerospace designer Burt Rutan, SpaceShipOne won the $10-million US Ansari X Prize. The prize was created to kick-start private development of rocket ships that would make spaceflight available to the public.

Branson isn't alone in the space tourism business: Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin is planning to take space tourists on suborbital trips, using the more traditional method of a capsule atop a rocket that blasts off from a launch pad. SpaceX's Elon Musk recently announced plans to take a wealthy Japanese entrepreneur and his friends on a trip around the moon.

When Branson licensed the SpaceShipOne technology, he envisioned a fleet carrying paying passengers by 2007, launching them from a facility in southern New Mexico called Spaceport America.

But there were significant setbacks. Three technicians were killed in 2007 by an explosion while testing a propellant system at Scaled Composites LLC, which built SpaceShipOne and was building the first SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic's tourism spaceship sits on the runway after landing on a runway just minutes after reaching the edge of space. (John Antczak/Associated Press)

Then, in 2014, SpaceShipTwo broke apart during a test flight by Scaled Composites when the co-pilot prematurely unlocked the "feathering" system and it began to deploy. The co-pilot was killed but the injured pilot managed to survive a fall from high altitude with a parachute.

New versions of SpaceShipTwo are built by a Virgin Galactic sister company and flight testing taken in-house.

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