Richard Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic is set to launch a key two-part launcher test flight, a step that could bring it closer to offering regular travel to the far reaches of space for the ultimate sightseeing tour.
With the launch delayed for more than a month due to COVID-19 restrictions, the company will have December 11-24 to complete the mission – the first launched from its launch site in New Mexico at Spaceport America.
The task list will include an assessment of improvements to the horizontal stabilizers and the flight control system that allows the pilot to manipulate them.
The reusable system features a double-hulled aircraft called VMS Eve that will carry the SpaceShipTwo Unity crewed passenger vehicle under the middle of its expansive wings.
Eve transports Unity high into the atmosphere where the passenger craft then separates and follows a suborbital path on her own.
We proudly added a piece of New Mexico to the livery of our spaceship. Our space flight will be the first time humans have traveled to space from the state. Thanks to the Zia Pueblo government for giving us permission to use this wonderful, perfectly balanced and iconic symbol. pic.twitter.com/WSr1TSbMs1
– Galactic Virgo (@virgingalactic) December 9, 2020
In December 2018, a Virgin Galactic spacecraft officially entered space for the first time when it reached an altitude of 82.8 km (51.4 miles).
For this month’s flight, Unity will have two human pilots plus “passengers” in the form of test dummies behind them in the main cabin.
The instrumented test dummies will be attached to the passenger seats, which will be actively reclined once the vehicle is in space.
The recline of the seats creates more leeway when cyclists are floating in zero gravity. According to plans released in November, this will be the first time the seats will be tested in space.
A Virgin Galactic spokesperson told Al Jazeera that there would be another test flight on a date to be determined, when “mission specialists will go to the cabin to perform tests on the cabin experience.” .
Some of the data collected during this month’s flight will be sent to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to support Virgin Galactic’s application for a reusable spacecraft operator license. The company has already cleared 27 of 29 FAA verification and validation items.
A market of 3 billion dollars per year in the making?
Getting FAA approval will open the door to what is expected to be a multibillion-dollar space tourism market.
“Although space tourism is still in its early stages, we believe it will become mainstream as the technology becomes proven and costs come down,” UBS analyst Jarrod Castle wrote in a study. March 2019 Market Report on Space Tourism and Travel Opportunities.
“We estimate, given the specter of space tourism, by 2029 space tourism could represent a market worth (approximately) $ 3 billion per year,” Castle said, adding that UBS is expects the sector to experience double-digit growth.
A number of companies are seeking a niche in the new market, according to UBS, with services ranging from weightless experiences for around $ 5,700 to space stays costing from $ 550,000 to $ 5.5 million per night. up to a trip to the moon for $ 150 million.
UBS has estimated the cost of a Virgin Galactic suborbital flight to be around $ 250,000.
According to Virgin Galactic, more than 700 people had deposited deposits for flights as of July 30.
Not just pleasure, business too
Pleasure travelers aren’t the only passengers Virgin Galactic plans to carry into sub-orbit. The company offers researchers the ability to both send payloads into the air and track their experiments. The cabin seats can be removed to make more room for research-oriented cargo.
This month’s flight will feature three experiences as part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.
The team has now installed the payloads of the @NASA Flight opportunities program in the cabin in preparation for space flight. On this flight, pilots will tilt the spacecraft 270 degrees after the boost to give payloads more time in data collection mode. pic.twitter.com/IzorNzECo0
– Galactic Virgo (@virgingalactic) December 9, 2020
The next flight will be the first powered launch of Spaceport America, where Virgin Galactic is now headquartered.
Completed in 2012, the facility is located in the Jornada del Muerto desert, near the White Sands Missile Range. The establishment also attracts other customers.
In October, the Canada-based C6 Launch Systems signed an agreement to test and operate its small rocket from spaceport. Other tenants and customers include HAPSMobile, AeroVironment, UP Aerospace, and SpinLaunch. Boeing and EXOS Aerospace also use the spaceport.
Just a few years ago, spaceports seemed more fanciful than a solid financial investment. Today, 11 US states have authorized commercial space ports and 13 more localities offer such facilities, Steve Wolfe, deputy executive director of the Global Spaceport Alliance, told Al Jazeera.
“Right now, all spaceports are looking for dedicated runway facilities for horizontal takeoff and landing. [HOTOL],” he said.
HOTOL is the airplane-type approach used by Virgin Galactic. Classic rockets take off vertically.
“Obviously, Virgin Galactic has created a lot of excitement about this,” Wolfe said.
“Now there are these aircraft launched vehicles,” Marcia Smith, a space expert and editor of SpacePolicyOnline.com told Al Jazeera.
“So having a spaceport basically means having a runway and not a launch complex – an orbital launch complex. Everyone is interested in it, ”she added.
The United Arab Emirates may be among those with new space ambitions. The United Arab Emirates and Virginia Galactic signed a memorandum of understanding in March 2019, potentially paving the way for the creation of a United Arab Emirates spaceport to support tourism launches as well as research.
“A lot of this technology is reaching a price point where a country of modest size could actually afford its own space program,” Wolfe said. “There is a lot of prestige involved and also the enthusiasm around the potential for economic development.”