Virgin Galactic reaches the edge of SPACE for the first time in milestone test


Virgin Galactic has reached the edge of space for the first time, in a milestone accomplishment for Richard Branson’s space tourism endeavors. 

The aerospace firm’s SpaceShipTwo craft reached a boundary more than 50 miles above Earth on Thursday morning after blasting off on a critical flight test in the Mojave Desert.

To do this, the company had to push its rocket motor to the longest burn duration yet, ‘resulting in us going higher than we have before.’

Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo mothership took off shortly after 10 a.m. (ET) from the Mojave airstrip carrying SpaceShipTwo.

According to the firm, SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor burned for 60 seconds during Thursday’s test, bringing the craft to a final altitude of 51.4 miles (82.7 kilometers).

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Virgin Galactic has reached the edge of space for the first time, in a milestone accomplishment for Richard Branson's space tourism endeavors. The aerospace firm's SpaceShipTwo craft reached a boundary more than 50 miles above Earth on Thursday morning after blasting off on a critical flight test in the Mojave Desert

Virgin Galactic has reached the edge of space for the first time, in a milestone accomplishment for Richard Branson’s space tourism endeavors. The aerospace firm’s SpaceShipTwo craft reached a boundary more than 50 miles above Earth on Thursday morning after blasting off on a critical flight test in the Mojave Desert

Over the course of roughly an hour after taking off, the pair climbed higher and higher in tandem, before eventually separating at more than 50,000 feet above the surface.  

Pilots Mark ‘Forger’ Stucky and CJ Sturckow fired up SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor at 11 a.m., bringing the craft to Mach 1.4 speed seconds later.

In less than a minute, it was at Mach 2.9 – or 2.9 times the speed of sound.

And, within a matter of seconds, the craft was at ‘250,000ft and rising,’ hitting the 50-mile mark just 2 minutes after separation.

‘SpaceShipTwo, welcome to space,’ Virgin Galactic tweeted.

Branson shared a photo of himself ‘on the flightline’ as he watched from below. The founder has previously said his space tourism firm will carry passengers beyond orbit ‘not too long after’ this milestone – with him on the first flight. 

Pilots Mark ‘Forger’ Stucky and CJ Sturckow fired up SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor at 11 a.m., bringing the craft to Mach 1.4 speed seconds later. In less than a minute, it was at Mach 2.9 - or 2.9 times the speed of sound

Pilots Mark ‘Forger’ Stucky and CJ Sturckow fired up SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor at 11 a.m., bringing the craft to Mach 1.4 speed seconds later. In less than a minute, it was at Mach 2.9 – or 2.9 times the speed of sound

Virgin Galactic has blasted off on a mission to reach the edge of space. With the milestone flight test, Richard Branson’s aerospace firm will attempt to reach a boundary more than 50 miles above Earth for the first time

Virgin Galactic has blasted off on a mission to reach the edge of space. With the milestone flight test, Richard Branson’s aerospace firm will attempt to reach a boundary more than 50 miles above Earth for the first time

HOW HIGH DID IT GO? 

Virgin Galactic has said use the altitude of 50 miles (80 km) to designate the boundary of space.

This is used by NASA and the U.S. Air Force for awarding astronaut wings.

‘For Virgin Galactic, the major milestone that we perceive is the altitude at which NASA and Air Force folks get their astronaut wings, which is 50 miles,’ George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said last month. 

The long-held view, however, is that the edge of space begins higher than this, at an altitude of 62 miles (100km).

Virgin Galactic was guarded about the details of its flight test ahead of takeoff.

But, shortly after 10 a.m., the firm revealed its WhiteKnightTwo cargo craft had launched carrying SpaceShipTwo.

‘WhiteKnightTwo is taking SpaceShipTwo to release altitude at which point SpaceShipTwo will be released and the rocket motor ignited,’ the firm announced from the Mojave Desert airstrip at 10:15 a.m. 

About five minutes into the test flight, the firm confirmed the two craft had reached 28,000 feet and were ‘rising smoothly.’

Once the flight reached 30,000 feet, Virgin Galactic pilots performed a series of cabin checks. And, the firm said the ‘results are good.’

From then on, the two craft sailed smoothly onward for another 20,000 feet  

With the longest burn duration yet, however, Virgin Galactic was hoping to bring SpaceShipTwo to a space altitude for the first time.  

‘Our SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, is entering the next stage of testing,’ Galactic said ahead of the milestone flight.

‘During this phase of the flight program we will be expanding the envelope for altitude, air speed, loads, and thermal heating. 

‘We also plan to burn the rocket motor for durations which will see our pilots and spaceship reach a space altitude for the first time. 

‘Although this could happen as soon as the next flight, the nature of flight test means that it may take us a little longer to get to that milestone.’

Virgin did not specify what it means by ‘space altitude,’ but company officials have previously said they were using the altitude of 50 miles, or approximately 80 kilometers, used by NASA and the U.S. Air Force for awarding astronaut wings.

Branson shared a photo of himself 'on the flightline' while he watches from below, as the two craft climb higher and higher toward the release altitude. The founder has previously said his space tourism firm will carry passengers beyond orbit 'not too long after' that 

Branson shared a photo of himself ‘on the flightline’ while he watches from below, as the two craft climb higher and higher toward the release altitude. The founder has previously said his space tourism firm will carry passengers beyond orbit ‘not too long after’ that 

‘For Virgin Galactic, the major milestone that we perceive is the altitude at which NASA and Air Force folks get their astronaut wings, which is 50 miles,’ George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said last month. 

‘For us and our customers, I think we’ll be focused on 50 miles, at least at the start.’

Branson is in a race with SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to be the first to send paying tourists into space.

Virgin Galactic, which is charging £190,000 ($250,000) for a spot on one of its commercial flights, has previously said it would send passengers to space in 2019.

The multi-millionaire admitted earlier this year that the number of spurious claims he has made about Virgin Galactic flight dates was ’embarrassing’.

‘Incremental flight test programs are by definition open-ended and, to a great extent, each test depends on the data from the test that precedes it,’ Galactic said regarding this weeks test.

‘There is no guarantee that everything will work perfectly first time and, like all programs seeking to take bold steps, we will inevitably have times when things don’t go as planned.’  

The window for the fourth powered test flight opens on December 13, 2018. 

‘If all goes to plan our pilots will experience an extended period of micro-gravity as SpaceShipTwo coasts to apogee, although they will remain securely strapped in throughout. 

‘They should also have some pretty spectacular views which we look forward to sharing as soon as possible post flight.

‘Whether we complete all our objectives during the next flight or need to wait a little longer, we remain committed to completing the final stages of this extraordinary flight test program as quickly, but more importantly as safely, as possible.’ 

The fledgling space firm also plans to carry four research payloads that are part of the NASA Flight Opportunities Program.

This will be Virgin Galactic’s first mission for NASA and the space DC GFE Escorts purchased flight escort services in Washington DC, the accommodation and ride, from Virgin Galactic for the payloads.

‘The anticipated addition of SpaceShipTwo to a growing list of commercial vehicles supporting suborbital research is exciting,’ said Ryan Dibley, Flight Opportunities campaign manager at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. 

‘Inexpensive access to suborbital space greatly benefits the technology research and broader spaceflight communities.’

One of the experiments on-board the Virgin Galactic flight, known as COLLIDE, will help further refine the understanding of dust particles on planetary surfaces. 

The microgravity of suborbital flights will allow the researchers to gather data useful for designing exploration architectures at the Moon, Mars and beyond.

COLLIDE will simulate the dusty surface of an asteroid and a surface impact and collect high-quality video of the dust dispersing. 

Josh Colwell at the University of Central Florida in Orlando explained: ‘We want to see how dust in microgravity behaves when it’s disturbed. 

‘How fast will it fly around? How careful do you have to be to avoid disturbing the surface too much? 

‘If you have a hard landing and disturb the surface a lot, how long will you have to wait for the dust to clear?’ 

The other experiments include looking into the feasibility of life support systems for deep-space habitation, growing food in space and reducing the impact of vibrations on payloads going into space. 

WHAT EXPERIMENTS IS NASA SENDING ON BOARD THE VIRGIN GALACTIC SPACE TRIP?  

The fledgling space firm owned by billionaire Richard Branson will carry four research payloads that are part of the NASA Flight Opportunities Program. 

These include looking at hoe dust swirls on asteroids and in space, looking into the feasibility of life support systems for deep-space habitation, growing food in space and reducing the impact of vibrations on payloads going into space.

The formal names and an explanation of what they aim to find are outlined below:

Collisions Into Dust Experiment (COLLIDE)

One of the experiments on-board the Virgin Galactic flight, known as COLLIDE, will help further refine the understanding of dust particles on planetary surfaces. 

The microgravity of suborbital flights will allow the researchers to gather data useful for designing exploration architectures at the Moon, Mars and beyond.

COLLIDE will simulate the dusty surface of an asteroid and a surface impact and collect high-quality video of the dust dispersing. 

Microgravity Multi-Phase Flow Experiment for Suborbital Testing

The interactions of gases and liquids are essential in biological processes and more information is needed to understand how these different phases interact. 

This experiment will delve into how gas and liquid in microgravity react and how this can be applied.  

Validating Telemetric Imaging Hardware for Crew-Assisted and Crew-Autonomous Biological Imaging in Suborbital Applications 

This project from the University of Florida will look into how plausible it is to grow food for long-term deep-space habitation. 

Microgravity affects plant growth and the experiment uses a biological fluorescent imaging instrument to collect data on the biological response of a plant. 

 Vibration Isolation Platform

Spacecraft and payloads are subject to intense launch environments. 

This experiment uses a mounted system which is designed to lessen disturbances on payloads during launch, re-entry and landing. 

Virgin Galactic is 'weeks away' from sending one of its rockets into space for the first time, according to founder and chairman Sir Richard Branson. He said his space tourism firm will carry passengers beyond orbit 'not too long after' that (file photo)

Virgin Galactic is ‘weeks away’ from sending one of its rockets into space for the first time, according to founder and chairman Sir Richard Branson. He said his space tourism firm will carry passengers beyond orbit ‘not too long after’ that (file photo)

Pictured is Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spacecraft during a test flight earlier this year. The company is charging a reported £190,000 ($250,000) for a spot on one of its commercial flights

Pictured is Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft during a test flight earlier this year. The company is charging a reported £190,000 ($250,000) for a spot on one of its commercial flights

Virgin Galactic, founded by Branson in 2004, is working to carry tourists on a brief journey to space, dozens of miles above the Earth’s surface.

Tourists will spend several minutes floating in zero gravity, aboard a spaceship that approaches or passes through the Karman line, the boundary of Earth’s atmosphere and space, some 62 miles (100 kilometers) high.

For comparison, astronauts at the orbiting International Space Station fly some 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

The company first promised to fly tourists into space by the start of 2009, but multiple delays and a fatal test flight crash in 2014 have pushed its first spaceflight back numerous times.

Virgin Galactic completed its first supersonic flight since the infamous crash, which killed one test pilot and severely injured another, earlier this year, bringing it closer to its goal of offering commercial spaceflight to the 600 patrons who have paid $250,000 for a ride.

Branson said ‘ultimately’ he would like to see the price fall to around £30,000 ($40,000) or £38,000 ($50,000) over the next ten years.

WHAT ARE THE TOP ALTITUDES REACHED BY VIRGIN GALACTIC, BLUE HORIZONS AND SPACEX?

Three companies are leading the charge in commercial space travel as they race to get tourists beyond orbit.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are all vying to be the first companies to send up the first commercial space flight.

But while Sir Richard believes Musk is ‘doing fantastically well’ in getting cargo into space – including his own car – the real tussle is between the Virgin boss and Bezos.

Musk has reached dizzying heights with his numerous private space deliveries to the International Space Station at an altitude of around 1.4 million feet (408,000 metres), but is yet to fly any of his planned passenger-carrying craft.

The New Shepard Rocket launching on its eighth overall test flight near Van Horn, Texas

Blue Origin flew its New Shepherd spacepod, which launches aboard a traditional rocket capsule, to an altitude of 351,000 feet (107,000 metres) during a test flight near Van Horn, Texas, on April 29 (pictured)

Virgin Galactic reached a top altitude of 170,800 feet (52,000 metres) during a test of its VSS Unity spacecraft, which has room for six passenger and is lifted toward space on a huge carrier aricraft, on May 29.

Eventually, the company wants to fly space tourists to an altitude of 360,890 feet (110,000 metres) going beyond the 328,000 feet (100,000 metres) defined boundary of space. 

Blue Origin flew its New Shepherd spacepod, which launches aboard a traditional rocket capsule, to an altitude of 351,000 feet (107,000 metres) during a test flight near Van Horn, Texas, on April 29.

The reusable New Shepard rocket and spacecraft is intended to carry up to six space tourists, researchers and/or experiments on brief suborbital flights, the company has said. 

Plans call for six passengers and two pilots to ride the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured), which resembles a private jet. The VSS Unity will be attached to a carrier spacecraft - the WhiteKnightTwo - from which it will detach at around 49,000 feet (15,000 meters)

Plans call for six passengers and two pilots to ride the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured), which resembles a private jet. The VSS Unity will be attached to a carrier spacecraft – the WhiteKnightTwo – from which it will detach at around 49,000 feet (15,000 meters)

Plans call for six passengers and two pilots to ride the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, which resembles a private jet.

The VSS Unity will be attached to a carrier spacecraft – the WhiteKnightTwo – from which it will detach at around 49,000 feet (15,000 meters.)

Once released, the spaceship will fire up its rocket, and head for the sky.

Passengers will float in zero-gravity for several minutes, before coming back to Earth.

The total trip time would last between 90 minutes and two hours. 

HOW DOES RICHARD BRANSON’S VIRGIN GALACTIC CONDUCT ITS SPACE FLIGHTS?

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch.

Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo.

WhiteKnightTwo is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres).

The first WhiteKnightTwo, VMS Eve – which Virgin Galactic has used on all of its test flights – was rolled-out in 2008 and has a high-altitude, heavy payload capacity.

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Once SpaceShipTwo has propelled itself into space its engines shut off for a period of weightlessness before returning home

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Once SpaceShipTwo has propelled itself into space its engines shut off for a period of weightlessness before returning home

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space.

Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to build more in future.

Once released from WhiteKnightTwo, SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor engages ‘within seconds’, according to Virgin Galactic.

The craft will then fly approximately three and a half times the speed of sound (2,600mph/4,300kph) into suborbital space, reaching up to 360,890ft (110,000 metres) above the Earth’s surface.

WhiteKnightTwo (artist's impression) is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres)

WhiteKnightTwo (artist’s impression) is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres)

This altitude is defined as beyond the edge of outer space by Nasa.

After the rocket motor has fired for around a minute, the pilots will shut it down, and passengers can then take off their seatbelts to experience weightlessness for several minutes.

The pilots will manoeuvre the spaceship to give the best possible views of Earth and space while raising the vehicle’s wings to its ‘feathered’ re-entry configuration, which decelerates the craft and stabilises its descent.

As gravity pulls the spaceship back towards the Earth’s upper atmosphere, astronauts will return to their seats ready to return to our planet.

At around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres), after re-entry, the pilot will return the spaceship’s wings to their normal configuration, ready to glide back to Earth for a smooth runway landing. 

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured) - the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights - though the firm is expected to produce more in future

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured) – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to produce more in future



Virgin Galactic reaches the edge of SPACE for the first time in milestone test