Virgin Galactic will reach space again next weekend, if all goes according to plan.
The company announced today (Feb. 1) that it's targeting Feb. 13 for the next test flight of its latest suborbital SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Unity, with further opportunities available throughout February. It will be Unity's third spaceflight overall and the first to lift off from New Mexico's Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic's commercial hub.
Unity's previous two test flights, which occurred in December 2018 and February 2019, took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California, near the headquarters of Virgin Galactic's manufacturing subsidiary, The Spaceship Company.
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This will be attempt number two for spaceflight number three. Unity already took a crack on Dec. 12, 2020, but the spaceliner's rocket motor didn't light up as planned, and pilots C.J. Sturckow and Dave Mackay brought the vehicle down for a safe landing at Spaceport America.
Virgin Galactic quickly traced the cause of the abort to a bad connection in the onboard computer that monitors Unity's propulsion system. That issue has been fixed, and the two-pilot, six-passenger space plane is ready to fly again, company representatives said.
The upcoming test flight "will incorporate all of the original test objectives" from the December attempt, "including evaluating elements of the customer cabin, testing the livestream capability from the spaceship to the ground and assessing the upgraded horizontal stabilizers and flight controls during the boost phase of the flight," Virgin Galactic representatives wrote in an update today.
As it did on Dec. 12, Unity will carry two pilots, no passengers and some research payloads manifested via the NASA Flight Opportunities program, company representatives added.
SpaceShipTwo is designed to fly passengers and scientific experiments on brief trips to suborbital space. The spaceliner lifts off beneath the wings of a carrier plane known as WhiteKnightTwo, then is dropped at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters). At that point, SpaceShipTwo's rocket motor engages, powering the vehicle to suborbital space.
More than 600 people have booked a ride aboard the vehicle to date, at a price (most recently) of $250,000 per seat, Virgin Galactic representatives have said.
The Feb. 13 mission is unlikely to be Unity's final test flight. In a Dec. 14 update, Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said that the company's testing plans involved reflying the Dec. 12 mission, "followed by another test flight which will include mission specialists in the cabin. And following that flight, we will have another test flight which will include our founder, Sir Richard Branson."
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.