Virgin Galactic: Richard Branson's rocket plane makes its official debut in commerce

starting the engine

After barely 20 years, Sir Richard Branson has finally started using his Virgin Galactic rocket plane, Unity, for commercial purposes.

On Thursday, the vehicle flew high above the desert in New Mexico so that three Italians could carry out scientific experiments while suspended in midair.

It was the first mission that was "purchased," as opposed to just a test flight.

The approximately 800 passengers who purchased tickets to ride Unity will now begin to be sent up by Sir Richard.

Around 0830 local time (1430 GMT), the 90-minute mission launched from Spaceport America and was broadcast live to viewers all over the world.

The carrier plane, Eve, then released Unity into space about two hours later, when it had climbed to a height of 50,000 feet (15,000 meters).

In 2001, US multimillionaire Dennis Tito paid reportedly $20 million to become the first space tourist in history. Jeff Bezos' space company Blue Origin won the race to carry paying customers into space, defeating Virgin Galactic.

The founder of Amazon has a launch vehicle and capsule system he calls New Shepard. Although it takes a different tack than Unity, it essentially accomplishes the same feat of lifting passengers in brief ascents.

Most Virgin Galactic ticket holders will still have a long wait before they can experience the edge of space; some have been waiting for more than ten years.

Unity can only accommodate a small number of passengers at once, and with a mission rate of one outing per month, clearing the backlog will take some time.

Virgin Galactic's new class of rocket planes, which is anticipated to make its commercial debut in 2026, won't be introduced until the pace picks up. One flight per week will be scheduled for these vehicles.

The aeroplane Eve
Thursday's launch of Unity was accomplished using a big aircraft called Eve.

Additionally, Virgin Galactic's success will depend on their introduction.

The Italian Air Force and the Italian National Research Council paid for Thursday's mission.

Col. A Walter Villadei, Lt.  Col. An investigation into how weightlessness affects the mixing of liquids and the behavior of biological cells was one of many experiments that astronaut Angelo Landolfi and engineer Pantaleone Carlucci oversaw during their flight.

Colin Bennett, an astronaut instructor for the company, was with the group in the cabin, and Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile, two of Unity's pilots, were in the cockpit.

Virgin Galactic's transition to a for-profit operation has been a difficult one.

To take advantage of the technology included in SpaceShipOne, the company was established in 2004. This was a small, privately funded rocket plane that had flown to space twice in two weeks and won a $10 million prize.

Sir Richard at the time believed he could introduce a passenger spaceship based on the SpaceShipOne idea by 2007.

The Italian members of the team aboard Unity hold up their country's flag in space
Italian team members on Unity display their nation's flag in orbit.

The first prototype vehicle, called Enterprise, broke up during a test ascent in 2014, killing one of the two pilots aboard. The engineering challenges were much greater than anyone had anticipated, and the project almost never recovered.

Virgin Galactic didn't get the successor, Unity, above 80 km (the altitude regarded as "outer space" by some organizations), until December 2018.

In July 2021, Sir Richard finally booked a seat on the aircraft and had an "extraordinary" flight experience.

The California-based company dubbed Thursday's mission "Galactic 01.". August is when Galactic 02, the first of those patient, ticketed passengers, will take off.

A rocket plane ride has been advertised for as much as $450,000 (£350,000).

Flight profile

A suborbital vehicle is called Unity. This means it can't reach the speed and altitude required to keep itself in orbit long enough to circle the Earth.

The spaceship is built to provide its passengers with breathtaking views as it ascends and give them a brief period of weightlessness.

A much larger aircraft first carries Unity to a height of roughly 15 km (50,000 ft), where it is then let loose. The ship is then propelled into the air by the ignition of a rocket motor in its back.

Unity can reach a maximum height of about 90km (55 miles, or 295,000ft). It is permitted for passengers to unbuckle and float to a window. Unity stabilizes its fall by folding its tailbooms as it descends before gliding home.

Unity feather system

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