Virgin Galactic cleared to fly again after a spell on Federal Aviation Administration's naughty step

More airspace and a hotline to the authority fixed up for the next flight


Virgin Galactic has received clearance by US flight regulators to resume spaceflights.

Owner Richard Branson's high altitude jaunt on the Unity 22 flight in July attracted the ire of the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) after the rocketplane, SpaceShipTwo, ventured outside of its allocated airspace.

SpaceShipTwo, dubbed Unity, landed safely with a jubilant Branson on board but future flights were put on hold while the matter was investigated.

The inquiry began on 11 August and has now concluded. The recommendations, according to Virgin Galactic, include expanding the protected airspace to allow for a greater variety of trajectories and adding steps to ensure real-time mission notifications are sent to FAA Air Traffic Control.

Virgin Galactic has remained tight-lipped over what happened on the Unity 22 flight that upset the FAA, preferring instead to celebrate its upcoming first commercial mission even as The New Yorker published an alarming account of an off-course flight.

The next mission was originally scheduled for late September or early October but, FAA investigation aside, had already slipped deeper into October thanks to a potentially defective flight control component.

A mid-October flight sets up another showdown between Branson and rival spacelord Jeff Bezos and his unfortunately shaped New Shepard rocket, which is due to fly again on 12 October with a crew including Planet Labs co-founder Dr Chris Boshuizen and Medidata co-founder Glen de Vries.

The other two crew members on the NS-18 mission have yet to be announced, although TMZ speculated that one might be the actor William Shatner. If true, the 90-year-old Star Trek veteran would comfortably trump Bezos' previous guest, 82-year-old Wally Funk, in the geriatric stakes. Neither Shatner nor Blue Origin have confirmed the actor's inclusion.

Blue Origin's approach to sub-orbital flight is through a booster and capsule arrangement, with the former making a powered landing and the latter returning to Earth via parachute. Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo takes off attached to a carrier aircraft, dubbed Eve, and is released at between 15km and 16km up before igniting its rocket engine to continue its flight. It subsequently glides back to a runway landing.

Neither is currently capable of achieving orbit. ®

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