Virgin Galactic aims to reach space soon with tourism rocket

Virgin Galactic could attempt test flight of SpaceShipTwo today

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. Image Virgin Galactic

A Virgin Galactic rocket plane reached space on Thursday and returned safely to the California desert, capping years of testing to become the first US commercial human flight to breach Earth's atmosphere since America's shuttle program ended in 2011.

Rocket man and Virgin billionaire Richard Branson's commercial space programme successfully reached the edge of the world's atmosphere for the first time in its fourth test flight across the United States today.

Virgin did not specify what it means by "space altitude", although company officials have earlier said that they are focusing on altitude of about 80 kilometres, as used by NASA, the United States Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration for awarding astronaut wings.

He founded the commercial spaceflight company in 2004, shortly after Mr Musk started SpaceX and Jeff Bezos established Blue Origin.

The test flight took off from the Mojave Air & Space Port in California at 7:11 am PT.

As for VSS Unity itself, Virgin Galactic confirmed at 16:14 UTC that the spacecraft had landed safely at Mojave Airport, a little over 10 minutes after touching space.

The test flight comes four years after Virgin Galactic's original spaceliner crashed, killing the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot. 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. "How on Earth do I describe the feeling?" he said.

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They said they also planned to burn the rocket monitor for durations which will see the pilots and spaceship reach a space altitude for the first time.

It was the fourth powered test flight for VSS Unity and the closest yet to mimicking the flight path that it is expected to one day take on commercial missions. In addition to the two pilots, SpaceShipTwo was also carrying a dummy to simulate a passenger and four unspecified research payloads that are part of the NASA Flight Opportunities Program. The space agency has lacked that capability for more than seven years.

Ultimately, the company aims to carry paying passengers on its spaceship, which is created to carry six people in addition to two pilots. Virgin Galactic hopes that the VSS Unity will go much higher on today's flight and will fly high enough to reach suborbital space.

Virgin Galactic has continued its incremental test programme and a third flight in July cracked Mach 2 as pilots kept the rocket burning for 42 seconds, powering through the stratosphere to an apogee of 170,800 feet.

Richard Branson's space tourism business achieves a great milestone.

"At the basic level, this flight will aim to fly higher and faster, " the company said in a statement.

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