The American spaceflight company Virgin Galactic is a step closer to its goal of taking passengers on quick jaunts into space. It intends to carry passengers on a high parabolic trajectory past the Karman Line, an imaginary boundary beyond which space begins.
After dedicating itself to conducting two years of rigorous ground and atmospheric tests, Virgin Galactic completed its first supersonic, rocket-powered flight with its SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity. On 5 April 2018, the experimental spacecraft took off at 8:02 am with Mark “Forger” Stucky and Dave Mackay in the cockpit attached to the carrier aircraft-WhiteKnightTwo, piloted by Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile. The vehicles attained an ascent of 46,500ft over the Sierra Nevada Mountains where VSS Unity was undocked from the motherboard and was left to glide. The rocket’s engine uses a solid block of plastic rocket fuel with nitrous oxide as an oxidizer. It moved upwards to an angle of 80 degrees and then the pilots fired its engine accelerating it to the maximum speed of Mach 1.87 (1,424 miles per hour) in just 30 seconds. It continued climbing up to 84.271 feet. After exhausting the burn, the rocket dropped to 50,000 feet before it deployed its twin tail booms at an angle of 60 degrees. This layout, known as the “feathered” configuration slows the aircraft so it can glide down for a conventional landing on a runway.
It was Virgin Galactic’s second attempt at the space flight testing. Its first flight SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise was destroyed during a powered test flight on 31 October 2014. After an investigation, it was revealed that during the flight, co-pilot Michael Alsbury deployed the twin tail booms early while it was still accelerating. It resulted in forces over 9Gs tearing the plane apart. Alsbury died in the flight’s crash while the pilot Peter Siebold was gravely injured.
The ascent of VSS Unity is still short of space which is broadly considered to start at the height of 60 miles. Nevertheless, the SpaceShipTwo can be credited for reaching the supersonic speed quickly without any incident.
The day is not far away when one can visit the space, feel the heartbeat race with excitement, and also experience weightlessness in free fall. The reusable plane designed by the company will carry two pilots and will have enough room for six passengers or a research payload. The flight will cost every space enthusiast an amount of $250,000 per seat.