SpaceShipTwo's next big test flight could happen this weekend

This will be the first time a spacecraft has ever launched from New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic is poised to launch the SpaceShipTwo as early as Saturday on a milestone powered flight test following a month-long delay due to COVID-19 restrictions in New Mexico. The company hopes to send a pair of astronauts, CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay, aboard the VSS Unity on a suborbital trip, marking the spaceplane’s third crewed test mission. What’s more, this launch will be the first time that a crewed spaceflight has taken off from New Mexico soil — making it only the third American state to actually launch spacecraft overall, behind California and Florida.

“We anticipate that this upcoming flight will provide some of the data for us to close out our final two verification reports required by the FAA to remove the remaining proviso in our current commercial spaceflight license,” Sturkow said in a statement. “Upon successful completion of this flight, and data review, we will proceed to the next phase of testing, where we will fly four mission specialists in the cabin to test and refine the equipment, procedures, training and overall experience.”

Virgin Galactic

The test flight will see the SpaceShipTwo take off from Spaceport America cradled by the VMS Eve, which will lift it to its launch altitude. Once the pair reach 50,000 feet, SpaceShipTwo will decouple, ignite its rocket engines and, hopefully, climb to a total altitude of 80km (about 50 miles) before gliding back to the planet and landing on a runway, just as a commercial jetliner would.

“This flight expects to fulfill a number of objectives, including testing elements of the customer cabin as well as assessing the upgraded horizontal stabilizers and flight controls during boost,” Virgin Galactic said in a recent press release. “The flight will also carry payloads as part of the NASA Flight Opportunities Program.”

The first payload is an experiment designed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) that measures the Earth’s electromagnetic fields in suborbital space, providing “researchers with vital information about the environmental conditions inside a spacecraft, while also adding to knowledge about the lower ionosphere,” according to NASA. This will be the second time that the APL’s experiment has hitched a ride aboard SpaceShipTwo.

“The access to these commercial flight vehicles through the Flight Opportunities program is truly game changing,” the APL’s H. Todd Smith said. “This enables new phases of research and technology development with lower cost and repeatable testing. Without it, technologies that are highly relevant to suborbital flight research would be years behind where we are now.”

The second passenger will be the University of Central Florida, Orlando’s Collisions into Dust Experiment (COLLIDE), which hopes to explain not only how human and robotic activity in orbit impacts the behavior of dust and fine particles but also potentially shed light on disc accretion mechanics and the formation of planets.

“Our experiments on SpaceShipTwo are designed to help us learn more about the particular types of dust and particle collisions that previous flights showed us could be very interesting to study more closely,” principle investigator Josh Colwell noted, “and to fix parts of our experiment that didn’t work the first time we tried them.”

Virgin Galactic Spaceship Cabin Interior
Virgin Galactic

While the SpaceShipTwo is perfectly capable of ferrying scientific equipment to the edge of space and back, the vehicle can carry up to seven tourists at a time into the upper limits of the mesosphere. It’s great work if you can get it, as each seat aboard the SpaceshipTwo costs an estimated $250,000 to sit in, though that hasn’t stopped more than 600 people from already reserving their spots once Virgin Galactic earns its spaceflight certification.

While onboard, both Sturckow and Mackay (as well as future space tourists) will be outfitted with lightweight suits made by UnderArmour. “I’m very much looking forward to wearing my own spacesuit during New Mexico’s first human spaceflight later this month and then many times in the future as we share the wonder of space with our future astronauts,” Mackay said in a statement.

This test launch follows a devastating powered flight crash in 2014 that ended with the VSS Enterprise (the VSS Unity’s predecessor) destroyed, Co-pilot Michael Alsbury killed, and pilot Peter Siebold seriously injured after the vehicle’s air-braking descent device deployed too early.

“Since our last flight to space, we’ve refined and upgraded a few other elements on the spaceship,” said Virgin Galactic’s President of Space Missions and Safety, Mike Moses. “We’ve extensively tested these changes on the ground and in our previous two flights from Spaceport America, and we are now ready to test them on a rocket-powered flight.  We’ve made upgrades to the horizontal stabilizers (known as H-Stabs), which are the flight control surfaces on the outboard of the feather booms.”

“We’ve also made improvements to the flight control system that commands these Hstabs to move in response to pilot inputs,” he continued. “We’ve already flown these improvements on our last two glide flights, and they performed well. Together these mods will enhance the performance of the spaceship and support long-term commercial service.”

The SpaceShipTwo’s flight test was originally slated to take place between November 19th and 23rd but recent spikes in COVID infections within the Land of Enchantment forced the company to delay the test by a month and stringently restrict public access to the launch itself.

“With safety as our core priority, we remain committed to completing our first powered flight in New Mexico,” said Virgin Galactic CEO, Michael Colglazier in a prepared statement. “While on this occasion no media or guests will be allowed onsite, our team will endeavour to capture and share the beautiful images with the world after the flight has been completed.”

“We anticipate that this upcoming flight will provide some of the data for us to close out our final two verification reports required by the FAA to remove the remaining proviso in our current commercial spaceflight license,” Moses concluded.

While the launch window is officially open and the crew and vehicle are ready, the weather forecast is currently less than ideal with high winds and turbulence. As such the company has announced the the launch will take place no earlier than Saturday.