Passenger carrying spaceship touches edge of space
A plane intended to take passengers into space has finally made it there. Virgin Galactic’s passenger space plane, the VSS Unity, made it above the 50-mile boundary that the US Air Force defines as the beginning of space last month.
It’s the first time Virgin Galactic has crossed that line inits 14-year history. Before last month, the highest the Unity had climbed was just over 32 miles.To get to a height of 51.4 miles, it ignited its engine for 60 seconds and reached a top speed of 2.9 times the speed of sound.
What is Virgin Galactic?
The company’s goal is to take paying customers into space, where they can experience a few minutes of weightlessness.
It was founded in 2004 by Richard Branson, who said he was aiming to take people into space by the end of the decade. But its first space plane, the VSS Enterprise, only reached an altitude of about 13.6 miles and was destroyed in a tragic accident during a test flight in 2014, which killed one of its two pilots.
Virgin Galactic debuted the VSS Unity two years later and progressed through a programme of test flights – first unpowered glide flights, then short powered flights using the rocket engine. This was its fourth powered flight.
Unlike other spacecraft, which are launched from the ground,
the Unity is carried to an altitude of around 45,000 feet by another aeroplane.
Did they really go into space?
Actually, it depends who you ask. NASA and the US Air Forcede fine space as anything higher than 50 miles. But the World Air Sports Federation, the world governing body for air sports (like ballooning) says 62 miles, although it says it is considering changing the definition based on new research.
Copilots Mark Stucky and Frederick Sturckow didn’t go into orbit, as the Unity can’t do that. But they are the first people to launch into space from the US since 2011, when NASA’s space shuttle made its last flight – since then all its astronauts have launched from Kazakhstan.
Virgin Galactic claims to have already sold hundreds of tickets for a space flight, at a cool $250,000 a piece – Ashton Kutcher and Tom Hanks have said they’ve bought one.
But the company still needs to do more testing with VSS Unity before carrying passengers, including more powered test flights, which Branson says will be higher and faster, and then cabin testing, when employees go through the procedures they plan to use during commercial flights, such as how they’ll get passengers into and out of their seats.
At the moment the company launches operates from the Mojave desert in California, but when commercial flights do take place, they will launch from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
The US Federal Aviation Administration will also present Stucky and Sturckow with Commercial Astronaut Wings – an accreditation for space pilots – at a ceremony in Washington DC this year.
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