Published: Tue, December 18, 2018
Sci-tech | By April Francis

Virgin Galactic's supersonic plane reaches space

Virgin Galactic's supersonic plane reaches space

The carrier airplane hauled the SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket plane to an altitude of about 45,000 feet (13.7 kms) and released it. Seconds later, SpaceShipTwo fired, catapulting it to more than 51 miles (82 km) above Earth, high enough for the pilots, Mark Stucky and Frederick Sturckow, to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet. Aboard were test pilots Mark "Forger" Stucky and C.J Sturckow. The plane reentered the atmosphere at 2.5 times the speed of sound and landed a few minutes later.

Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company founded by entrepreneur Richard Branson, has successfully made it to space for the first time with VSS Unity, their SpaceShipTwo-class rocket-powered plane, during the craft's 4th test flight.

Thursday's test flight carried two pilots, four NASA research payloads, and a mannequin named Annie as a stand-in passenger.

VSS Unity's peak altitude of 51.4 miles is similar to what Virgin Galactic has planned for commercial flights. Mr Bezos has also said Blue Origin plans to send its first crew to space in 2019.

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

The brief, suborbital flight - with two pilots on board - was a key milestone for the company headed by British tycoon Richard Branson, who is striving to carry tourists to space at a cost of $US250,000 ($345,000) per seat.

Branson told reporters Thursday that "by being successful today, we hope to bring in one or two other investors".

Virgin Galactic said by reaching this height, the spacecraft had reached the boundary of space for the first time.

"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 fantastic Mojave family". Branson plans to be the first passenger aboard VSS Unity.

Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides noted that recent research favoured the lower altitude.

Company officials have maintained they're emphasizing safety above all else as a previous test-flight back in 2014 crashed in the Mojave Desert, killing one of the pilots and injuring another.

"When you are in the test flight program of a space company, you can never be completely, 100 percent sure, because that's what a test flight program is", he said. Blue Origin will use the more traditional method of spacecraft attached to a rocket launched from the ground.

Virgin Galactic, which is charging $250,000 for a 90-minute flight, has said more than 600 people have bought tickets or put down deposits for an eventual voyage.

Branson had initially said that the company could start sending people into space from as early as 2007 but the deadline has repeatedly been postponed due to technical difficulties.

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