SpaceShipTwo ready to slip the surly bonds of Earth for Virgin Galactic

The Hawk promises to take flight into space

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Updated Virgin Galactic is set to unveil its new space plane on Friday, 16 months after the last one crashed in the Mojave Desert.

"Very soon, Virgin Galactic will introduce our new spaceship to our customers, our partners, and the world," the company said in a statement.

"As we celebrate the end of one critical phase of work, we also mark the start of a new phase, one focused on further testing and, ultimately, the first commercial human spaceflight program in history."

The new aircraft is expected to be unveiled at Spaceport America on Friday, but it'll be a long time before paying passengers will be climbing aboard. The aircraft won't even feel the wind beneath its wings for a while yet, as Virgin is going to test the hell out of it on the ground first.

George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, said last year that it could be 2017 before the space plane takes off for business, and this latest announcement appears to confirm that. The aircraft will be tested on the ground, and then undergo a series of test flights to make sure there are no repeats of the earlier crash, which killed one pilot and left the other injured.

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The cause of that crash was the premature unlocking of the aircraft's tail as it was accelerating past Mach One. The tail is designed to rotate upwards on reentry to keep the aircraft stable, but the premature release caused it to swing around and aerodynamic forces destroyed the entire craft.

The new aircraft is very similar to the old one in design and equipment, but some improvements have been made. It will be put through a number of glide tests, then powered flights up to 62 miles (100 km) above the earth's surface.

That height is important, because it is the limit set by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale that humans must cross if they want to be called astronauts. That qualification is the basis of this craft's business plan.

Virgin Galactic wants to charge people $250,000 per trip, and the passengers will only experience a few minutes of weightlessness before falling back to earth. You can experience the same effect for $5,000 using commercial vomit comet services that use airplanes flying in steep descent.

What those services don't give you is the right to call yourself an astronaut, or a view of the Earth from space. Virgin Galactic's high-altitude flights are designed to sell you those bragging rights and memories, and so far the firm has collected $80m in fees from people eager to get on board.

Virgin's founder Richard Branson promised the first commercial flights would take place in 2010, but we're still waiting. The loss of its spacecraft was a major setback and the firm is going to be very careful in testing to make sure there isn't another loss.

"This isn't a race," the firm said. "We have shown we are committed to being thorough in our testing: it is the right thing to do and it is essential to our ultimate success. As a thousand-year-old saying goes, there is no easy way from the Earth to the stars. But finally, there is a way, and through steady testing, we will find it." ®

Updated to add

Professor Stephen Hawking has officially named the newly unveiled aircraft VSS Unity at a ceremony at Spaceport America.

"I once confessed that my ultimate ambition was to fly into space but I thought no-one would take me," he said.

"Following this, Richard called me from Necker Island to offer me a seat. I said ‘Yes’ immediately. Since that day, I have never changed my mind. If I am able to go – and if Richard will still take me, I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship."


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