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Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane launcher flies again

Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane launcher flies again

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VMS Eve will transport one of the company's spaceplanes between its two fuselages and launch in-flight.

VMS Eve will transport one of the company’s spaceplanes between its two fuselages and launch in-flight. Image: Jonathan Daniel (Getty Images)

Virgin Galactic’s VMS Eve carrier aircraft took to the skies in California yesterday for a vital two and a half hour flight test. This is the latest sign that the company, founded by Richard Branson, is preparing to resume suborbital flights.

SpaceNews reported that VMS Eve — named for Branson’s late mother — took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 1:30 p.m. ET. The plane then flew for over two and a half hours, reaching an altitude of 41,500 feet (12,650 meters) before landing back in Mojave. According to SpaceNews, it was Eve’s first test flight in over a year when the plane flew from Spaceport America in New Mexico to Mojave in October 2021.

Eve, which debuted in 2008, is a mothership carrying the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft, which uses a pylon between its two fuselages. At an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15 kilometers), the mothership releases the spaceplane, which then uses its own rocket engine to propel itself into space, or at least the accepted minimum limit of space, before gliding back to Earth. The system’s main purpose is space tourism – with tickets worth over $450,000 – but Virgin Galactic also books scientific research projects from organizations like NASA.

As Aviation Week reports, the company is testing an overhaul of the four-point launch pylon that Eve uses to launch spaceplanes to high altitudes. The company yesterday uploaded a video to Twitter showing the launch, flight and landing of the carrier aircraft during testing on February 15.

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“A key reason for flight testing Eve is to inform our models. We have the ability to model our vehicle in terms of aerodynamics, loads and systems,” Senior Flight Test Director Kelly Latimer said in a Q&A on the company’s website. “So for flight testing, we actually go out and fly very specific conditions, collecting data from the vehicle, like airspeed, altitude and various other aircraft parameters. Our engineers take all of this information and update their models because while we don’t fly every possible situation, our computer models can and do!”

Virgin Galactic’s share price rose 13.5% on Wednesday after the completed test. That’s good news for Virgin Galactic as its sister company Virgin Orbit has been faltering lately. Virgin Orbit – Branson’s satellite launch company – had cash flow problems, a sluggish satellite launch frequency and a rocket crash during its first UK orbital launch attempt last month, apparently triggered by a troubled $100 filter. Amidst this spate of troubles, Virgin Orbit received $55 million from Virgin Investments Limited to correct course, which doesn’t bode well.

More on this story: Richard Branson’s Satellite Launch Company isn’t doing so hot

Virgin Galactic is trying to get back on track with its suborbital flights, and this completed test flight is certainly a step in the right direction – but this voyage has seen some turbulence. The company was temporarily restricted by the Federal Aviation Administration from flying its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft following a treacherous flight of the company’s VSS Unity in July 2021, which Branson was on board.

As first described in The New Yorker, pilots David Mackay and Mike Masucci ignored a warning that VSS Unity did not have the required glide energy to reach their destination. The crew also flew the vehicle outside of sanctioned airspace. By September 2021, the FAA announced that it was satisfied with the corrective actions taken by the company after the July flight.

At the moment, it’s not clear how much more testing needs to be done with Eve, but Aviation Week reports that the changes made to the carrier plane ahead of this launch forced the company to reallocate engineering efforts from its recently unveiled VSS Imagine spaceplane that Virgin Galactic was in the Unveiled March 2021 but has yet to fly.

The company has only made two suborbital flights with its spaceplanes so far, the first of which was a test. Virgin Galactic still plans suborbital test flights with Unity in early 2023 ahead of a planned research flight in conjunction with the Italian Air Force later this year. And then maybe back to the business of tourist flights to the minimal limit of space.

More: Launch of NASA’s Artemis 1 megarocket was really, really loud

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