Sat, Dec 15, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Virgin Galactic rocket reaches ‘edge of space’

AP, MOJAVE, California

An airplane carrying Virgin Galactic’s Unity tourism spacecraft takes off from a facility in Mojave, California, on Thursday.

Photo: AFP

Virgin Galactic’s tourism spaceship on Thursday climbed more than 80km above California’s Mojave Desert, reaching for the first time what the company considers the boundary of space.

The rocket reached an altitude of 82km before beginning its gliding descent, mission official Enrico Palermo said.

It landed on a runway minutes later.

“We made it to space,” Palermo said.

The supersonic flight takes Virgin Galactic closer to turning the long-delayed dream of commercial space tourism into reality. The company aims to take paying customers on the six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said there would be more test flights and if all goes well, he would take a ride before the public gets a chance.

“I believe that sometime in the second half of next year that we will start being able to put regular people up into space,” he said, describing Thursday as one of the best days of his life.

Virgin Galactic considers 80km the boundary of space, because that is the distance used by the US Air Force and other US agencies. That is different from a long-held view that the boundary is at 100km.

Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides said that recent research favors the lower altitude.

Whitesides said a review of the data from the test flight would last into next year.

“This is a huge step forward and once we look at the data we’ll see what that pathway is,” he said.

At the start of the test flight, a special jet carrying the Virgin Space Ship Unity flew to an altitude of 13,100m before releasing the craft. The spaceship ignited its rocket engine and it quickly hurtled upward and out of sight of viewers on the ground.

The spaceship reached Mach 2.9, nearly three times the speed of sound.

The two test pilots — Mark “Forger” Stucky and former NASA astronaut Rick “C.J.” Sturckow — are to be awarded commercial astronaut wings, US Federal Aviation Administration official Bailey Edwards said.

“It was a great flight and I can’t wait to do it again,” said Sturckow, who flew on the space shuttle four times.

Virgin Galactic’s development of its spaceship took far longer than expected and endured a setback when the first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the copilot.

“People have literally put their lives on the line to get us here,” Branson said. “This day is as much for them as it is for all of us.”

More than 600 people have committed up to US$250,000 for rides that include several minutes of weightlessness and a view of the Earth far below. The spaceship is also to be used for research: NASA had science experiments on the test flight.

The endeavor began in 2004 when Branson announced the founding of Virgin Galactic in the heady days after the flights of SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed crewed spacecraft, which made three flights into space.

Funded by the late billionaire Paul Allen and created by aerospace designer Burt Rutan, SpaceShipOne won the US$10 million Ansari X Prize. The prize was created to encourage the private development of rockets that would make spaceflight available to the public.

When Branson licensed the SpaceShipOne technology, he envisioned a fleet carrying paying passengers by 2007, launching them from a facility in southern New Mexico called Spaceport America, but there were significant setbacks.

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