Virgin Galactic debuts new SpaceShipTwo for space tourism era

19 Feb 2016

SpaceShipTwo image via Jeff Foust/Flickr

Virgin Galactic has unveiled the updated version of its plane, SpaceShipTwo, which it hopes will be the craft to begin the first journey into true space tourism.

It’s quite the comeback for Virgin Galactic, with it having experienced a major tragedy and setback for space tourism following the death of one of its test pilots back in 2014, but the SpaceShipTwo craft has now been given a major overhaul.

When it is eventually launched, the craft will be able to carry six passengers to the fringes of space at around 100km from the surface of the Earth where they’ll get the chance to experience weightlessness for a few minutes.

However, having learned from the previous disaster, this new craft will be put through rigorous testing before it even leaves the surface of the Earth in order to make sure that every single component on it works.

Following the disaster in 2014, it was determined that the co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, had prematurely engaged the tail structures that create drag on the craft, known commonly as the ‘feathers’.

The major issue the American National Transport Safety Board found was that the designer of the feathers component had not accounted for having a means to prevent human error.

Now, following extensive testing of components, it can begin testing the entire craft, which, it stresses, will not be a quick process.

No commercial launch date yet

“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 statement issued by the company reads.

“Indeed, our new vehicle will remain on the ground for a while after her unveiling, as we run her through full-vehicle tests of her electrical systems and all of her moving parts. We already know these things work individually, but one can’t simply assume they will all work together—that must be tested and verified. We’ll do so quickly, but we won’t cut corners.”

Due to this extensive testing, no date has been confirmed, as yet, for its first commercial flight but, once it has been deemed airworthy, it will gradually test the craft higher and higher in the atmosphere and, once it reaches a height of 80km above the Earth’s surface, its pilots – and eventual passengers – will have been officially deemed astronaut-worthy by NASA.

SpaceShipTwo image via Jeff Foust/Flickr

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic