Virgin Galactic brings space tourism closer to reality with third rocket powered test flight

2018-07-30 15:30
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Virgin Galactic's space tourism rocket plane VSS Unity soared over the Mojave Desert on its third powered test flight.

The company says the craft ascended Thursday at more than twice the speed of sound and reached an altitude of 52 kilometres.

The spacecraft was taken aloft by the carrier aircraft VMS Eve and released at high altitude before the two test pilots ignited the rocket motor and pulled Unity into a near-vertical climb.

The craft then glided to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port.

The test flights are aimed at bringing the craft into commercial service.

This is only the third time that the rocket plane has been tested operating under powered test conditions. Prior to the powered test flights, Virgin Galactic made numerous glide tests which were meant to to test stability and control under forces approaching what it will endure when its rocket is fired for suborbital flights into the lower fringes of space. 

PICS: Virgin Galactic conducts 7th glide test of spacecraft

Once the glide tests had borne enough benefit for the next step in testing, Virgin Galactic was all over it. On 5 April, VSS Unity fired its rocket motor for the first time in a rocket-powered test flight.

Less than two months later on the 29 May, the skies over California became the site of the second rocket-powered test. VSS Unity, this time, fired its rocket motor for 31 seconds and climbed to an altitude 34 899 metres before gliding to a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port.  

WATCH: Virgin Galactic spacecraft makes second powered test flight

Virgin Galactic says that brings the company closer to its goal of being able to fly its spacecraft more frequently than has been typical for human spaceflight. This third rocket-powered test brings the prospect of space tourism ever closer to reality. With many companies vying to establish dominance in what could likely be a very lucrative industry, the news of this latest test flight brings space tourism ever closer. 

The two companies leading the pack in the pursuit of space tourism say they are just months away from their first out-of-this-world passenger flights - though neither has set a firm date.

Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, and Blue Origin, by Amazon creator Jeff Bezos, are racing to be the first to finish their tests - with both companies using radically different technology.

SEE: You can almost start buying tickets for Blue Origin's 41-minute space trips

Neither Virgin nor Blue Origin's passengers will find themselves orbiting the Earth: instead, their weightless experience will last just minutes. It's an offering far different from the first space tourists, who paid tens of millions of dollars to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) in the 2000s.

The goal is to approach or pass through the imaginary line marking where space begins - either the Karman line, at 100 kilometres, or the 50-mile boundary recognised by the US Air Force.

At this altitude, the sky looks dark and the curvature of the earth can be seen clearly.

With Virgin Galactic, six passengers and two pilots are boarded onto SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, which resembles a private jet.

The VSS Unity will be attached to a carrier spacecraft - the WhiteKnightTwo - from which it will then detach at around 15 000 metres. Once released, the spaceship will fire up its rocket, and head for the sky.

Then, the passengers will float in zero-gravity for several minutes, before coming back to Earth.

Blue Origin, meanwhile, has developed a system closer to the traditional rocket: the New Shepard.

On this journey, six passengers take their place in a "capsule" fixed to the top of a 60-foot-long rocket. After launching, it detaches and continues its trajectory several miles toward the sky. During an 29 April test, the capsule made it 106.2 kilometres.

After a few minutes of weightlessness, during which passengers can take in the view through large windows, the capsule gradually falls back to earth with three large parachutes and retrorockets used to slow the spacecraft.

SEE: 3, 2, 1, liftoff! First space tourist flights could come in 2019

If the journey isn't long enough for you then perhaps you should consider saving up to book a space in space technology start-up Orion Span's Aurora Station. The 12-day journey will come with a hefty price tag - as the cost per person is estimated to be $9.5m (about R125,12m at R13.17/$). Keen travellers are able to put down a $80k deposit to secure an exclusive spot on the waitlist. The luxury hotel is expected to orbit Earth every 90 minutes, which means travellers will experience an average of 16 sunrises and sunsets within a 24-hour period.

WATCH: Take a peek inside the first ever luxury space hotel

SEE: 5 Ways that space travel can destroy the human body

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