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Virgin Galactic to launch first crewed test flight from New Mexico this month

Virgin Galactic is coming one step closer to its goal of bringing paying tourists to the very edge of space, with the company announcing it will perform its first crewed test flight from Spaceport America later this month.

The spacecraft VSS Unity, a SpaceShipTwo model, will take off from Spaceport America in New Mexico, from where customers will launch to the edge of space. The company has previously performed a number of test flights from Mojave Air and Space Port in California, but now it will perform another test with crew aboard from New Mexico.

As reported by AP, the VSS Unity will be taken into high altitude by a carrier jet and then released, from where its rocket engines will carry it onward to an altitude of at least 50 miles. The craft will then descend and glide back to earth, landing on a runway.

There’s some debate about where high altitude ends and space begins, but a commonly used delineator is the Kármán Line, which sits 62 miles above sea level. This means the flight will technically be considered sub-orbital.

Crew members who be will onboard include Virgin Galactic Pilot CJ Sturckow and Chief Pilot Dave Mackay, however, the arrangement will be a little different from how it will unfold when actual passengers are on board.

“One thing to note about this flight is that once we are in space, we will be flying slightly differently than how we plan to fly with our Future Astronauts,” the company explained in a statement.

“This is because we’ll have three NASA payloads in the cabin, flown through NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. Unlike our Future Astronauts, these payloads aren’t on board for the view, so instead of stopping the vehicle pitch in the inverted position for the best views of Earth, we’ll pitch the vehicle 270 degrees following boost to get to the entry attitude as soon as possible. This maneuver will maximize time for the payloads to remain in data-collection mode. Carrying these payloads not only makes this test flight a revenue-generating one, but also demonstrates our commitment to facilitating regular, accessible space-based scientific research.”

The aim is for the test flight to go ahead in the period between November 19 and November 23, according to a statement by the company, following a launch window that opened on October 22.

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