Virgin Galactic has been cleared to fly again by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) following an anomaly on its previous flight, the WSJ has reported. The agency launched a probe into the space company's first crewed flight after it dropped below its approved trajectory.
The FAA determined that the SpaceShip Two Unity craft, with founder Richard Branson and five others aboard, had deviated from its assigned airspace for a minute and 41 seconds and failed to report the error as required. However, it accepted Virgin Galactic's proposal to expand the protected airspace for a wider array of possible trajectories and to communicate with air traffic control in real time during flights.
"The updates to our airspace and real-time mission notification protocols will strengthen our preparations as we move closer to the commercial launch of our spaceflight experience," said Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier in a statement.
According to a report in the New Yorker, pilots saw a "red light" warning near the end of the powered flight indicating that the spacecraft had veered outside its entry glide cone, putting it at risk of an emergency landing. Virgin Galactic said that the deviation was due to high altitude winds and that the craft didn't fly outside the lateral confines of its protected airspace. "At no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public," a spokesperson said.
With a flight clearance in hand again, Virgin Galactic may fly its next mission in mid-October, potentially with members of the Italian Air Force. After that, both the current SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo host aircraft would spend four months receiving upgrades, the company previously said.