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Universe Today

Virgin Galactic’s first New Mexico space shot fizzles

Virgin Galactic lit up SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor for the first time in the skies over New Mexico today, but only for an instant before the engine shut down and the plane glided back to a safe landing at Spaceport America.

The flight test team had hoped that the SpaceShipTwo craft known as VSS Unity might make it all the way to the 50-mile space milestone with two test pilots at the controls.

Unity has made it that high up twice before, in 2018 and 2019, when the test operation was based at Mojave Air and Space Port in California — but this was the first powered test flight planned since operations moved to Spaceport America.

Today’s outing followed up on two glide tests conducted in May and June of this year. All appeared normal during the flight’s early phases. VSS Unity was carried into the air by its twin-fuselage mothership, known as WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve, and was released to fly free at an altitude of more than 40,000 feet.

webcast provided via NASASpaceflight.com showed the flash of the plane’s hybrid rocket motor lighting up, but only for a second.

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Cosmic Space

Virgin Galactic preps for next suborbital steps

Virgin Galactic is gearing up for its first spaceflight from its new home base at New Mexico’s Spaceport America this fall — and says planetary scientist Alan Stern will be among the first commercial spacefliers.

“This is the first selection of a private-sector researcher to fly with NASA funding on commercial vehicles,” Stern said in a news release.

Stern has never flown in space, but he has a lot of space experience: He’s best-known as the principal investigator for NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt — which is hurtling outward on the edge of the solar system, ready for its next assignment.

He also has played roles in more than two dozen other space missions, and served as an associate administrator for science at NASA as well as the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s board chairman and founder of the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group.

During his upcoming spaceflight, which is yet to be scheduled, Stern will practice astronomical observations using a low-light-level camera that was previously employed during space shuttle flights. He’ll also be fitted with sensors that will monitor his vital signs from just before the two-hour flight until after its landing.

Alan Stern
Alan Stern is associate vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute. (SwRI / Purdue Photo)

Stern’s home institution, the Southwest Research Institute, bought tickets to fly on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane almost a decade ago — and his personal interest in taking a trip to space goes back even further in time. Back in 2009, Stern told me that scientific research was likely to become the killer app for suborbital spaceflight.

“You spark this industry with tourists, but I predict in the next decade the research market is going to be bigger than the tourist market,” Stern said at the time.

A decade later, the unexpected twist turned out to be that suborbital research flights preceded tourism trips as money-makers for Virgin Galactic and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. Just this week, Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship flew a dozen experiments for paying customers on an uncrewed test flight to the edge of space and back.  Scientific payloads have become a standard add-on for Virgin Galactic’s crewed test flights as well.

SpaceShipTwo’s last trip past its 50-mile-high space boundary took place back in February 2019. Since then, Virgin Galactic has moved the focus of flight operations from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port to New Mexico’s Spaceport America. Meanwhile, NASA has been working out the procedures to fund suborbital flights for researchers.

Now the stars seem to be aligning for commercial operations: Today, Virgin Galactic laid out the roadmap that it says should lead to SpaceShipTwo Unity’s first test flight to space and back from Spaceport America this fall.

The company said it’s conducting a series of rehearsals on the ground — and the pilots are using SpaceShipTwo’s carrier airplane, known as WhiteKnightTwo or VMS Eve, as an “in-flight simulator” for the approach and landing.

Chief pilot Dave Mackay explained that “the crew can practice the identical approach and landing pattern to the one they will fly in Unity – with much of the same information displays, and the same view out the window.”

Three scientific payloads will ride on SpaceShipTwo during the powered test flight, thanks to funding from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. There’ll just be the two pilots on board — Stern and other would-be passengers will have to wait a while longer.

In an application filed with the Federal Communications Commission, Virgin Galactic says it has a “crewed, powered test flight” scheduled for Oct. 22, to be preceded by practice flights by VMS Eve. But that date isn’t written in stone (or even carbon composite).

“Although preparations are going well, we are not quite at the stage where we can confirm specific planned flight dates for either our VSS Unity or VMS Eve test flights,” Virgin Galactic said in today’s update.

All of which means Alan Stern – and hundreds of other potential spacefliers who have signed up for trips on SpaceShipTwo – will probably be watching their e-mailbox (and Virgin Galactic’s Twitter account) very closely in the weeks to come.

Update for 5:49 p.m. PT: I’ve revised this report to make clear that Stern won’t be aboard SpaceShipTwo during its next test flight to space in New Mexico – though I’m betting he’d like to be. 

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GeekWire

Virgin Galactic offers a VR peek inside SpaceShipTwo

More than a decade after Virgin Galactic unveiled a swoopy, spacey look for the passenger cabin of its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, the company took the wraps off a more down-to-Earth design that reflects what spacefliers will actually see when they climb into their seats.

And in a move befitting this era of social distancing, the big reveal was done with the aid of virtual reality.

Virgin Galactic went so far as to lend out Oculus Quest headsets to journalists, including yours truly, so we could get an advance peek at a computer-generated interior with an eye-filling view of Earth and space out the window.

The VR experience let me do something I could never do during a real-life rocket ride: walk through the walls of the spaceship, stand on the wing … and step off into space. The thought experiment was a cosmic version of the classic VR game where you walk on a plank sticking out from the ledge of a virtual skyscraper and dare yourself to jump off. I couldn’t do it from SpaceShipTwo Unity’s wing unless I kept my eyes closed.

Get the full story (and video) from GeekWire.

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GeekWire

NASA gets set to put astronauts on suborbital flights

Beth Moses
Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut trainer, Beth Moses, exults over the view out the window of the company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane during a suborbital spaceflight in February 2019. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine signaled today that astronauts would soon be cleared to take suborbital spaceflights aboard the commercial rocket ships being tested by Virgin Galactic and by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

“NASA is developing the process to fly astronauts on commercial suborbital spacecraft,” Bridenstine said in a tweet. “Whether it’s suborbital, orbital or deep space, NASA will utilize our nation’s innovative commercial capabilities.”

Bridenstine said the details will be laid out in a request for information to be released next week.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

A first: SpaceShipTwo flies free over New Mexico

For the first time, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane flew free in the skies over New Mexico’s Spaceport America, its new base of operations.

The SpaceShipTwo plane, known as VSS Unity, has made rocket-powered flights beyond the 50-mile space milestone during tests at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, but today’s unpowered test flight was the first to be flown from Spaceport America.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Virgin Galactic resumes sales effort for space trips

New Mexico spaceport
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its WhiteKnightTwo mothership arrive at Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Virgin Galactic via YouTube)

Virgin Galactic says it’s letting customers pay $1,000 refundable deposits toward suborbital trips on its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, resuming spaceflight sales after a hiatus of more than a year.

In a news release, Virgin Galactic reported that 7,957 people have signed up on its website to register interest in such trips. Starting Feb. 26, all those people will be able to put their money where their interest is.

The company hasn’t yet set the price or the timetable for newly reserved trips under its “One Small Step” program. But based on past statements, the eventual price tag will be more than the $250,000 that Virgin Galactic was charging before it suspended ticket sales in December 2018.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Next SpaceShipTwo reaches factory milestone

VSS Unity and next SpaceShipTwo
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity space plane is parked to the left, and a SpaceShipTwo plane that’s under construction is at right. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

The rocket plane that’s due to become Virgin Galactic’s second commercial suborbital spaceship can now stand on its own two feet — or to be more precise, on its own landing gear.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

SpaceShipTwo carries three people for the first time

SpaceShipTwo Unity
The SpaceShipTwo rocket plane known as VSS Unity touches down at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port after the first suborbital space test flight to have three people aboard. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic followed up on last December’s first SpaceShipTwo flight past the 50-mile space milestone by sending up its first non-pilot on today’s test flight.

The crew member who accompanied the two pilots was Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor (and wife of the company’s president, Mike Moses).

Today’s test sent the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity, to a height of 55.87 miles (89.9 kilometers), Virgin Galactic said.

The flight followed Virgin Galactic’s usual profile: Unity was slung beneath its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, VMS Eve, for takeoff from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port. At an altitude of about 45,000 feet, Unity was released into the air and fired its hybrid rocket engine for a minute, screaming toward the black sky of space at a top speed of Mach 3.04.

After a zero-gravity coast at the top of the ride, Unity glided back to the airport for an airplane-like landing. Eve made its own landing minutes later.

It was Unity’s fifth supersonic test flight, setting the stage for what could be the start of commercial operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico later this year.

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GeekWire

Virgin Galactic makes a deal for spacesuits

Kevin Plank and Richard Branson
Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson share a moment with Nick Cienski, Under Armour’s lead spacesuit designer. (Under Armour Photo)

Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, today took the wraps off a partnership with Under Armour to create the spacesuit and the footwear that he could well be wearing on a SpaceShipTwo suborbital space trip within a few months.

Under Armour will also create a performance training program for Virgin Galactic’s hundreds of customers — including the opportunity to train at Under Armour’s lab in Portland, Ore.

The actual apparel design and other details will have to wait for a future reveal. But Branson, ever the optimist, suggested that the kickoff for Virgin Galactic’s commercial space operation at Spaceport America in New Mexico is coming soon.

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GeekWire

Virgin Galactic plane takes 51-mile-high spaceflight

Virgin Galactic spaceflight
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne rocket plane, dubbed VSS Unity, fires its hybrid rocket motor for a 51-mile-high flight. (MarsScientific.com / Trumbull Studios)

MOJAVE, Calif. — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, dubbed VSS Unity, has become the first privately funded vehicle in 14 years to carry people to the edge of space — depending on how you define space.

“I’m not allowed to say this, but hopefully we’re going to space today!” Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, said just after the flight took off from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port today.

Over the course of almost an hour, SpaceShipTwo and its White Knight Two mothership rose to a launch altitude of about 43,000 feet. Just before 8 a.m.. PT, the rocket plane was dropped from White Knight Two’s underbelly and lit up its own hybrid rocket motor.

The rocket blasted for 60 seconds, sending Unity upward at supersonic speeds as high as Mach 2.9 and powering test pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Rick “CJ” Sturckow to a height of 271,268 feet. That translates to 51.4 miles, or 82.6 kilometers.

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