Virgin Galactic’s six-passenger VSS Unity spaceship has completed its second non-powered glide flight at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico, the company announced Thursday afternoon.
The VMS Eve mothership carried the Unity on its underbelly to 51,000 feet, at which point the spaceship detached from Eve and glided back down to Earth for a smooth landing on the spaceport runway, the company said.
It’s the second Unity glide flight since May 1, when Eve and Unity flew together for the first time in New Mexico. Eventually, when the company launches commercial service to fly paying passengers to space, Unity will power up its motors after breaking away from the mothership to shoot into space at more than 50 miles up. There, customers can float for a few minutes in microgravity and view the Earth’s curvature below.
The glide flights allow Virgin Galactic to evaluate systems and vehicle performance before moving on to powered flights from the spaceport, said CEO George Whitesides.
“I am thrilled with the team’s hard work to complete today’s test flight successfully,” Whitesides said in a prepared statement. “It was an important test that, pending data review, means we can now start preparing the vehicles for powered flight. Our focus for this year remains unchanged on ensuring the vehicles and our operations are prepared for long-term, regular commercial spaceflight service.”
It’s unclear when powered flights will begin and how many motorized test runs will be needed before starting commercial passenger flights. The company had said early this year it hoped to fly Sir Richard Branson on Unity sometime in 2020 before moving onto commercial service, but the coronavirus pandemic has slowed operations.
The company said it’s observing “stringent operational protocols” to guard against COVID-19 in all tasks at the spaceport. That includes changes to work areas and procedures to enforce social distancing, and requiring all employees to wear masks.
During Thursday’s flight, Unity reached faster glide speeds than in the last test on May 1, hitting Mach 0.85 after being released from the mothership. The two Unity pilots, Michael “Sooch” Masucci and Mark “Forger” Stucky, performed a series of maneuvers during the flight to gather data about performance and handling qualities at higher speeds, the company said.
The company continues to conduct other tests in the air and on the ground. It completed two “pilot proficiency” flights earlier this month with the mothership. And last weekend, the company’s spaceship and propulsion teams carried out a full dress rehearsal to check out Virgin Galactic’s new facilities and equipment at the spaceport, positioning the spaceflight system on the runway and loading the Unity with active propellant.
After fully completing a data review of Thursday’s flight, the company will start preparing for powered test flights, although it must still complete other tasks, including final modifications to the spaceship’s customer cabin and detailed inspections of the vehicle and systems.
Still, Thursday’s flight drew praise from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“I’m excited by the continued progress Virgin Galactic has made in New Mexico and confident in their work going forward,” Lujan Grisham said in a prepared statement. “Our state has the opportunity to be a leader in commercial spaceflight, and partners like Virgin Galactic are leading the way.”