Virgin Galactic moved a step closer to commercial space flight next year after a successful test over the weekend from New Mexico.
The company’s third spaceflight was the first from Spaceport America base, making New Mexico the third US state to launch humans into space.
The spaceship VSS Unity was dropped from mothership VMS Eve and achieved a speed of Mach 3 as hit space at an altitude of 55.45 miles before gliding smoothly to a runway landing at Spaceport America.
The space tourism venture backed by British billionaire Richard Branson had originally scheduled the weekend test for February but it was delayed after a rocket in the spaceship, VSS Unity, misfired during a December flight.
This was attributed to an electromagnetic interference issue that prompted an onboard computer to halt the ignition of the motor.
But the prospect of a successful test was labeled last week as “highly positive” by respected US analysts Bernstein, boosting optimism commercial flights could begin by early 2022.
On VSS Unity’s flight deck were CJ Sturckow, who became the first person to reach space from three states, and Dave Mackay, while Kelly Latimer and Michael Masucci piloted VMS Eve.
The company said the crew experienced extraordinary views of the bright, blue-rimmed curvature of the earth against the blackness of space, giving the space company’s customers a glimpse of what waits ahead.
“Today’s flight showcased the inherent elegance and safety of our spaceflight system, while marking a major step forward for both Virgin Galactic and human spaceflight in New Mexico,’’ said Virgin Galactic chief executive Michael Colglazier, who described space travel as “a bold and adventurous endeavor”.
“We will immediately begin processing the data gained from this successful test flight, and we look forward to sharing news on our next planned milestone.”
Galactic said objectives achieved during the flight included the carriage of revenue-generating scientific experiments as part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities program and collecting date for two final verification reports for its commercial reusable spacecraft operator’s license with the US Federal Aviation Administration.
It also tested the spaceship’s upgraded horizontal stabilizers and flight controls and validated reductions in electromagnetic interference.