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Virgin Galactic preps rocket plane for Saturday test flight

Virgin Galactic will send its suborbital space plane on another rocket-powered test flight on Saturday, May 22, as the company eyes the launch of a space tourism service next year.

Pending weather and technical checks, Virgin Galactic’s VMS Eve aircraft will take off from Spaceport America in New Mexico carrying the VSS Unity rocket plane.

At an altitude of about 50,000 feet, VMS Eve will release VSS Unity, at which point its rocket will fire up, blasting the plane and its two pilots toward space.

In a release announcing the test flight, Virgin Galactic didn’t say how high the rocket plane will travel in Saturday’s test, though on its last powered test flight in 2019, the vehicle reached around 56 miles (90 km/295,000 feet) above Earth, a few miles below the Kármán line that’s generally considered to mark the edge of space.

Following a VMS Eve test flight in early May that didn’t involve the rocket-powered plane, an issue was discovered in the tail of the aircraft that threatened to delay the upcoming suborbital mission. However, engineers have now given the nod for this weekend’s effort.

“Following a detailed inspection and thorough analysis of our mothership, Eve, we have cleared our Spaceflight System for our upcoming flight,” said Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic. “I want to thank our incredibly talented team of engineers, maintenance crew, quality inspectors, and support staff for their diligence and hard work, which is testament to our commitment to safety and the integrity of our flight test program.”

While putting both Eve and Unity through their paces, the pilots will also take with them research payloads for NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.

Space tourism flights

Virgin Galactic is competing with the likes of Blue Origin to launch a commercial service for suborbital space flights.

At the current time, it seems that Blue Origin, led by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, may be closer to reaching the goal as the company prepares to send its first paying customer on the ride of a lifetime in July. It should be noted, however, that the passenger will be selected via an auction — taking place now — for a seat on the one-off flight and that Blue Origin is yet to announce the launch of a regular commercial service.

It seems that Virgin Galactic won’t be livestreaming Saturday’s test, but it’ll likely release some footage soon after the event.

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Trevor Mogg
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