Virgin Galactic takes another step towards blasting Richard Branson into space

Also: Arianespace gets ready for a return to action while Rocket Lab shows off its US launchpad

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Roundup Signs of life were detected back on Earth last week as space launch industry looked to resume operations.

Virgin Galactic sends SpaceShipTwo into the New Mexico sky

VSS Unity took its inaugural solo flight in New Mexico last week as Spaceport America crawled closer to the first commercial jaunts from its runway.

The rocket-powered spacecraft was attached to the carrier aircraft, VSS Eve, and released at an altitude of 50,000 feet, marking the first time VSS Unity has flown freely in New Mexico airspace.

There were sadly no rocketry-based shenanigans planned this time as the spacecraft, with Dave Mackay and CJ Sturckow at the controls, glided to a landing back at the spaceport, reaching a speed of Mach 0.7 on the way down.

The company completed its relocation to its new headquarters in February, and the flight was the first opportunity to check out all the components needed to fly the spacecraft in glide configuration. VSS Unity has not attempted a flight to space (depending on which definition you're using) since 2019's trip 89.9km up.

While the company has kicked off preparations for the next flight, it has remained tight-lipped on when the first paying passengers might take that long-awaited trip in Branson's space jalopy. Back in February the company insisted that its top priority was to fly Richard Branson into space in 2020.

For some, that moment cannot come soon enough.

Arianespace gets ready to restart

Arianespace announced last week that it was to resume its operations after a COVID-19-induced shutdown.

The European rocket wranglers shut up shop in March after measures introduced by the French government in response to the pandemic made operations impossible. Amid concerns over the health of staff and the local populace, bosses hit the pause button.

An easing of the restrictions by the French government has meant the company can cautiously resume operations, with a gradual resumption of activity planned from 11 May at Guiana Space Center.

The first mission off the pad is expected to be VV16 in mid-June, a rideshare launch of the Vega rocket, carrying 50 satellites. The mission will represent a return to flight for the small satellite flinger after July 2019's launch met a watery end.

Following the Vega will be the heavyweight Ariane 5 at the end of July, carrying two payloads; one for Intelsat and the other for B-SAT. Two other missions, on Soyuz launchers, are planned to resume later in the summer.

Rocket Lab erects an Electron on its US pad, resumes New Zealand operations

Small sat launch specialists Rocket Lab revealed last week that its Electron booster had taken a trip to its Launch Complex 2 pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Virginia, for the first time. The rocket was pulled to its vertical launch position for pad fluid systems, power and communication check-outs.

A Rocket Lab representative told The Register that the test, which involved a hot ignition check of the nine Rutherford engines on the booster's first stage, was actually conducted back in March before restrictions were imposed.

The test is one of the final milestones on the road to a planned launch of a single micro-sat for the Air Force Research Laboratory's Monolith program no earlier than the third quarter of 2020.

The mission will be notable for its inclusion of Rocket Lab's Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS), which is designed to terminate an off-nominal flight without relying on a human operator. It was first tested on the company's "Running Out Of Fingers" mission and will be the first time such a system has been flown from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. Assuming, of course, NASA gives it the nod.

The Rocket Lab representative also told us launch preparations had resumed at the company's New Zealand Launch Complex 1 as the country began to ease lockdown restrictions imposed in response to the coronavirus.

The mission was originally due to launch during a 14 day window, commencing from 27 March, before being postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. With operations resuming, the representative told us that a new date would be announced within the next few days. ®

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