The world of space science has treated us to a couple of cool revelations in the past couple of weeks, like how tourists will get to space in the future!
There’s a new spaceship out there.
Unveiled in a ceremony on February 19th, 2016, it’s called the VSS Unity - the name chosen by Stephen Hawking - and it’s the latest version of Virgin Galactic’s space tourism vehicle, Enterprise, which will escort space fans on quick trips out of Earth in humanity's near future.
The previous version of the VSS Enterprise was lost in the October 2014 crash that killed one of its test pilots, Michael Alsbury. Unity is designed to incorporate the lessons the company learned from that accident, and hopefully, make sure that nothing like it ever happens again.
Mainly, that involved adding a particular fail safe. The Enterprise system gets to space with the help of WhiteKnightTwo, a plane that’s basically its mothership. The plane carries the spaceship to a certain height and releases it. Then, the ship uses rocket power to get above 100 kilometers (~60 miles) - the point where the passengers are officially in space. The flights are designed so that space tourists get to experience a few minutes of weightlessness, then head back to Earth, which involves a tricky glide back down through the atmosphere.
To help the ship slow down on its way home, Enterprise had what’s known as a “feathering system.” When the ship re-enters the atmosphere, the wings and tail tilt upward to help it slow down.
And that’s what went wrong with the Enterprise back in 2014.
The feathering system is only supposed to be activated after the engines have stopped firing, when the ship is already going a little more slowly. But on the day of the crash, one of the pilots unlocked the feathering system too early, and the Enterprise broke apart.
So one of the main changes to the new ship is that, even if pilots try to unlock the feathering system at the wrong time, the computer system will make sure that they won’t be able to.
The Unity isn’t quite ready to fly yet, though. The ship still needs to go through all kinds of ground testing, to make sure the components work together properly. Then the next major step will be glide tests, where the ship is released by WhiteKnightTwo and glides to a landing without firing its rockets.
If all goes well with the ground and glide tests, the Unity will be ready for the final stage of testing, where it’ll use rocket power for test flights that go higher and higher, and eventually reach space. After that, it might start ferrying some of the 700 people who have already signed up for the $250,000 flights.
There’s no word yet on how long testing is expected to take, and it sounds like the Virgin Galactic team isn’t in any kind of rush, which makes sense; this is spaceflight, where we reach great distances by taking many, many small steps.
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Source: This story was originally published on SciShow Space. I am republishing a lightly edited version on SkyFeed in light of interest on the subject. Hofmeister, Caitlin. “Virgin’s New Spaceship.” SciShow Space, YouTube. 26 Feb, 2016. Web video.
Citation: Rovira, Lia N. "Your Ticket to Space: VSS Unity." SkyFeed. 3 Sept, 2018. Web article.