Virgin Galactic, a spaceflight company under the Virgin Group founded by Richard Branson, welcomes a new rocket plane to its family. The new vessel is called VSS Unity.
Virgin Galactic tweeted that the vessel name actually came from Stephen Hawking himself, who is an advocate of the company's future ventures. In their Twitter feed, the company posted the message from the world renowned scientist: “If I am able to go & if Richard will still take me, I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship.”
Not flying yet
Although the launch of the new vessel brought excitement to a lot of people, the company posted in their blog that they will not be doing any test flights quite yet, as all near-term tests will be done on land. To quote Virgin Galactic directly
"If you are expecting SpaceShipTwo to blast off and head straight to space on the day we unveil her, let us disillusion you now: this will be a ground-based celebration."
The VSS Unity is expected to be the first private spaceline with the intention of sending tourists into space. The vessel is carried by Virgin's twin-fuselage airplane WhiteKnightTwo to an altitude of 45,000 feet. Once this altitude is achieved, the SpaceShipTwo vessel will separate itself from WhiteKnightTwo and ignite its own rocket motor to blast off into space.
This new vessel can carry two pilots and 6 passengers into suborbital trajectory, with passengers experiencing several minutes of weightlessness. Using a unique "feathering" technique, SpaceShipTwo rotates its wings, increasing its drag, and slows down to descend back to Earth.
The company based the design of VSS Unity on its predecessor, SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize back in 2004. The contest challenged the public to build the first privately-funded spacecraft that was capable of carrying 3 people.
A price to pay
If you are interested in hopping aboard the VSS Unity, prepare yourself for the hefty $250,000 ticket price. But despite this, Virgin Galactic has already sold more than 700 tickets.
It should also be noted that the previous version of SpaceShipTwo, The Enterprise, had a fatal crash during a test flight two years ago. The crash resulted in the death of the co-pilot, and the other pilot was seriously injured. The National Safety Transportation Board investigated the crash that took place in the Mojave Desert, and concluded that it was caused by a co-pilot error in terms of the feathering system. The co-pilot rotated the wings too early, causing the plane to break apart in the sky.
Despite this tragedy, Virgin Galactic will be moving forward with full vehicle tests for VSS Unity:
Our team’s job is to plan out not just the obvious tests but also the strange and inventive ones, to conduct those tests, and to use the data from those tests to re-examine everything about our vehicle to ensure we can take the next step forward. – Virgin Galactic