Virgin Galactic pushes ahead in wake of tragic crash

The new SpaceShipTwo under construction by Virgin Galactic. Image courtesy of Virgin Galactic.
The new SpaceShipTwo under construction by Virgin Galactic. Image courtesy of Virgin Galactic.

Private spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic, has revealed the progress it has made in the construction of a new spacecraft designed to replace the one destroyed in a crash last year.

Six months ago the VSS Enterprise crashed during an in-atmosphere test of its rocket motor, killing one pilot and severely injuring the other.

While many thought the accident spelled the end of Virgin Galactic’s hopes of producing a commercially viable system, the company’s owner, Sir Richard Branson, vowed to press on in the wake of the crash and build a new craft.

The new spacecraft under construction by Virgin Galactic will effectively be a copy of the Enterprise, built around its ‘SpaceShipTwo’ design. These craft are designed to be taken high into the atmosphere by a carrier aircraft, before being propelled into space by a hybrid rocket motor.

While unable to reach orbit, these spacecraft can take up to six paying space tourists above the 100km legally defined boundary of space, allowing them to see the curvature of the Earth, and experience weightlessness.

A seat aboard one of these craft costs around $250,000 and many people have reportedly already pre-booked tickets.

“Our human spaceflight program in Mojave has been making progress on building the second SpaceShipTwo. That new vehicle […] is coming along at a steady pace, thanks to the efforts of the women and men in our manufacturing organization, The Spaceship Company,” explained the company in a press statement.

Virgin is hoping for this craft to enter testing late this year, once it has passed a rigorous series of safety and quality checks.

Satellite launch aspirations

Alongside its human spaceflight ambitions, Virgin Galactic is also looking to market an innovative solution for launching satellites into orbit at low cost.

Using a similar setup to the SpaceShipTwo, a carrier aircraft will carry a two-stage rocket called LauncherOne to a high altitude, before letting it drop away and boost into orbit.

Virgin believes that this system will fill a niche enabling the launch of small satellites of up to 225kg into Low Earth Orbit for a mere $10m.