Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic rocket plane is back in action after a hiatus of nearly two years.
The Unity vehicle, with two pilots and four passengers on board, climbed high over the New Mexico desert to the edge of space – before sliding back down.
It was billed as the aircraft’s final test outing before entering commercial service in June.
Galactic has sold more than 800 tickets to individuals who want to ride more than 80 km (260,000 ft) above the Earth.
The company expects to work through this passenger list with Unity flights initially operating once a month. New rocket planes are being designed for service in 2026 that should each be capable of increasing cadence to one per week.
Thursday’s mission came just days after winning bids were announced to buy the assets of Sir Richard’s other aerospace company, Virgin Orbit, which filed papers with a bankruptcy court in April.
This company failed after a failed attempt to launch satellites from the UK to space in January.
During Unity’s last spaceflight, Mike Masucci took command of the plane with pilot CJ Sturckow alongside him.
The vehicle sped upward at nearly three times the speed of sound and reached an altitude of 87.2 km (54.2 miles/286,000 ft).
In the back of the passenger cabin were four Galactic employees.
Jamila Gilbert, Chris Huie, Luke May and Beth Moses were on hand to review the soon to be rolled out customer experience. Ms. Moses is the company’s chief astronaut instructor.
Sir Richard himself got his chance at a space flight in July 2021 – Unity’s last outing.
The rocket vehicle and the aircraft carrying it to launch altitude – an aircraft named Eve – were subsequently withdrawn for a program of upgrades.
“The focus was really mostly on the mothership, on Eve, and it was about getting a lifespan, a flight cadence, that would support more robust and routine commercial spaceflight operations,” explained Mike Moses, president of space missions and security at Galactic.
“An example would be the pylon – the thing in the middle of the mothership that holds the spacecraft. It’s perfectly strong, but we’d have to start looking at it every flight. And so we switched to something that now allows us to inspect every 20, 30 or 40 flights,” he told BBC News.
Flight operations over the New Mexico spaceport have also been revised. During Sir Richard’s 2021 mission, Unity briefly stepped outside the airspace reserved for it — an anomaly that prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to launch an “accident investigation” at the time.
This was solved by widening the reserved airspace and adjusting the pilots’ inputs to their controls which – as Mr. Moses put it – “increases our chance of staying in the middle of the column of flight”.
Sir Richard’s quest to commission a commercial spaceliner has been in play since 2004. Developing the technology has taken much longer – and cost much more – than anyone expected.
However, the vast majority of people who boarded early to make flight deposits have remained patient. Indeed, the backlog of passengers has grown steadily over time.
Nevertheless, the wait will be even longer for many. It won’t be until the middle of this decade that the company’s new fleet of Delta-class rocket planes begin flying that the waiting list will begin to shrink significantly.
Unity is a sub-orbital vehicle. This means it cannot reach the speed and altitude necessary to keep it in space to orbit the globe.
The spacecraft is designed to give its passengers a beautiful view of the top of the climb and give them a few minutes to experience weightlessness.
Unity is first carried by a much larger aircraft to an altitude of about 15 km (50,000 ft), where it is released. A rocket motor in the back of Unity then ignites to launch the ship into the air.
The maximum altitude that Unity can reach is about 90 km (55 mi or 295,000 ft). Passengers may detach to float to a window. Unity folds its tail booms during descent to stabilize its fall, before sliding home.
Virgin Galactic’s first commercial mission in June will surface three Italian nationals. The men plan to conduct a number of science experiments during the flight, and specifically during those few minutes of weightlessness they will experience at the top of Unity’s climb.