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Virgin Galactic successfully launches shuttle in step towards space tourism plans

The shuttle, with two pilots on board, took off and landed today.

Image: PA

A VIRGIN GALACTIC shuttle with a crew on board has made a rocket-powered flight from New Mexico to the “fringe of space”.

The VSS Unity’s rocket motor sent out the ship and two pilots as the company moves towards offering tourist flights to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.

A live feed by NASASpaceFlight.com showed the rocket ship accelerating upward, estimated a top altitude of at least 50 miles and confirmed a landing later via radar.

Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson confirmed in a Twitter post that the two pilots and a research payload belonging to Nasa had reached space. 

The company is aiming for commercial operations to begin next year following testing and a few months of down time for maintenance and other upgrades.

That testing will include a flight that will take Branson to the edge of space later this year.

Tweet by @Richard Branson Source: Richard Branson/Twitter

The first powered test in New Mexico from Spaceport America was delayed repeatedly before Saturday’s launch.

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In December 2020, computer trouble caused by electromagnetic interference prevented the spaceship’s rocket from firing properly.

Instead of soaring toward space, the ship and its two pilots were forced to make an immediate landing.

While Virgin Galactic’s stock price ticked up this week with the announcement of the latest test being scheduled for Saturday, it was not enough to overcome the losses seen since a peak in February. 

Some analysts have cautioned that it could be a while before the company sees profits as the exact start of commercial operations is still up in the air.

Virgin Galactic is one of a few companies looking to cash in on customers with an interest in space.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is due to launch a billionaire and his sweepstakes winners in September. That should be followed in January 2022 by a flight by three businessmen to the International Space Station.

Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin launched a new capsule in January as part of testing as it aims to get its programme for tourists, scientists and professional astronauts off the ground.

It is planning for lift-off of its first crewed flight on 20 July, the date of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Virgin Galactic has reached space twice before – the first time was from California in December 2018. The company marked its second successful glide flight over Spaceport America last June.

Preparations for the latest attempt included a maintenance review of the special carrier plane that flies the six-passenger spacecraft to a high altitude, where it is released so it can fire its rocket motor and make the final push to space.

The flights are designed to reach an altitude of at least 50 miles before the rocket motor is turned off and the crew prepares to re-enter the atmosphere and glide to a landing.

As part of the return trip, a feathering system slows and stabilises the craft as it re-enters the atmosphere.

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