Virgin Galactic’s long-delayed test flight to space is aborted midway after engine malfunctions

Virgin Galactic has suffered another setback to its mission to send commercial passengers into space after its rocket unexpectedly turned back before reaching space during its latest test flight. 

The VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo vehicle on Saturday embarked on its third test flight to suborbital space and its first ever to take place from Virgin Galactic’s New Mexico base. 

But the flight was brought to an end prematurely before reaching space when the spacecraft’s computer lost connection and the engine failed to ignite.    

The company’s optimistic CEO brushed off the disappointment and pointed out the positive takeaway that the ‘flight landed beautifully’ back at base.

However it marks the latest blow to Richard Branson’s spaceflight company which has been marred by delays from the get-go.    

Virgin Galactic has suffered another setback to its mission to send commercial passengers into space after its rocket unexpectedly turned back before reaching space during its latest test flight. Pictured the flight

Virgin Galactic has suffered another setback to its mission to send commercial passengers into space after its rocket unexpectedly turned back before reaching space during its latest test flight. Pictured the flight

The VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo vehicle on Saturday embarked on its third test flight (above) to suborbital space and its first ever to take place from Virgin Galactic's New Mexico base

The VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo vehicle on Saturday embarked on its third test flight (above) to suborbital space and its first ever to take place from Virgin Galactic’s New Mexico base

But the flight was brought to an end prematurely before reaching space when the spacecraft's computer lost connection and the engine failed to ignite

But the flight was brought to an end prematurely before reaching space when the spacecraft’s computer lost connection and the engine failed to ignite

The VSS Unity took off at about 8:25 a.m. local time from Virgin Galactic’s new desert headquarters at Spaceport America, New Mexico. 

The spaceship was crewed by two veteran pilots, former NASA astronauts CJ Sturckow and David Mackay, and was attached to the carrier aircraft VMS Eve. 

There were no passengers on board the aircraft but it was carrying dummies as well as payload belonging to NASA.

The rocket was then released at an altitude of about 50,000 feet. 

At this point, it should enter a gentle glide and the engine is supposed to ignite moments later, sending the rocket in a near-vertical climb toward space.  

But the spacecraft achieved just one second of powered flight before the motor failed, according to NASASpaceFlight.com.

Virgin Galactic later revealed the spacecraft’s onboard computer lost connection and this triggered a safety function to cut off the engine’s ignition. 

The spacecraft turned back to base, where it made a smooth landing just one hour after take-off.  

The VSS Unity took off at about 8:25 a.m. local time from Virgin Galactic's new desert headquarters at Spaceport America, New Mexico

The VSS Unity took off at about 8:25 a.m. local time from Virgin Galactic’s new desert headquarters at Spaceport America, New Mexico

The spaceship was crewed by two veteran pilots, former NASA astronauts CJ Sturckow and David Mackay, and was attached to the carrier aircraft VMS Eve

The spaceship was crewed by two veteran pilots, former NASA astronauts CJ Sturckow and David Mackay, and was attached to the carrier aircraft VMS Eve

There were no passengers on board the aircraft but it was carrying dummies as well as payload belonging to NASA. The rocket was then released at an altitude of about 50,000 feet

There were no passengers on board the aircraft but it was carrying dummies as well as payload belonging to NASA. The rocket was then released at an altitude of about 50,000 feet

At this point, it should enter a gentle glide and the engine is supposed to ignite moments later, sending the rocket in a near-vertical climb toward space. But the spacecraft achieved just one second of powered flight (pictured in flight above)

At this point, it should enter a gentle glide and the engine is supposed to ignite moments later, sending the rocket in a near-vertical climb toward space. But the spacecraft achieved just one second of powered flight (pictured in flight above)

The company had been chronicling the build-up and start of the flight on its Twitter page before becoming vague after announcing ‘we are go for release’.

‘SpaceShipTwo Unity is headed for home. We will share more information once we have it,’ the company tweeted less than 10 minutes later.

Virgin Galactic chronicled the failed flight on Twitter

Virgin Galactic chronicled the failed flight on Twitter

‘Touch down,’ a follow-up tweet added after just another four minutes.  

Virgin Galactic announced the reason behind the failed flight in a brief statement on Twitter. 

‘The ignition sequence for the rocket motor did not complete. Vehicle and crew are in great shape,’ the company tweeted, adding that it had ‘several motors ready’ and would ‘be back to flight soon’.  

The company tweeted a statement from CEO Michael Colglazier a short time later admitting the flight did not go as planned but praising the ‘picture-perfect landing’ from the pilots which he said was ‘the level of safety’ tourists want. 

‘Today’s flight landed beautifully, with pilots, planes, and spaceship safe, secure, and in excellent shape – the foundation of every successful mission! Our flight today did not reach space as we had been planning,’ he said. 

Colglazier explained that when the computer lost connection, a ‘fail-safe scenario’ was triggered halting the engine’s ignition.

‘After being released from its mothership, SpaceShipTwo Unity’s onboard computer that monitors the rocket motor lost connection. As designed, this triggered a fail-safe scenario that intentionally halted ignition of the rocket motor.’  

The spacecraft's onboard computer lost connection and this triggered a safety function to cut off the engine's ignition, forcing the spacecraft to turn back to base

The spacecraft’s onboard computer lost connection and this triggered a safety function to cut off the engine’s ignition, forcing the spacecraft to turn back to base

The spacecraft made a smooth landing back in New Mexico just one hour after take-off with CEO Michael Colglazier calling it a 'picture-perfect landing'

The spacecraft made a smooth landing back in New Mexico just one hour after take-off with CEO Michael Colglazier calling it a ‘picture-perfect landing’

‘Seeing firsthand how our pilots brought Unity in for a picture-perfect landing after an off-nominal condition confirmed this approach. I am even more confident that this is the level of safety that consumers will want and will be expecting from us.’

Colglazier added that the company would now assess what went wrong and would share its findings in due course.

‘As we do with every test flight, we are evaluating all the data, including the root cause assessment of the computer communication loss,’ he said.

‘We look forward to sharing information on our next flight window in the near future.’

The test flight, the first in two years for the company, had already faced several delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, followed by poor weather conditions this week. 

Virgin Galactic has already done two test flights into space, with the first back in December 2018.  

The company tweeted a statement from CEO Michael Colglazier a short time later admitting the flight did not go as planned but praising the 'picture-perfect landing' from the pilots which he said was 'the level of safety' tourists want

The company tweeted a statement from CEO Michael Colglazier a short time later admitting the flight did not go as planned but praising the ‘picture-perfect landing’ from the pilots which he said was ‘the level of safety’ tourists want

Saturday’s aborted flight marked the third and was supposed to lead in to the next phase of final testing where engineers will fly in the passenger cabin and test the hardware and camera settings – as well as the views. 

This will now be pushed back until another test flight can be carried out.

The space tourism company – much like its rivals – has faced issues from the start.

Concerns about its safety grew when, in 2014, the fourth test flight of one of the company’s SpaceShipTwo crafts broke apart mid-air, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other. 

The schedule has also been marred by numerous delays and the company is yet to confirm when tourists can embark on the first commercial flight into space. 

The race to get off the ground has been hotting up with Branson competing with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to become the first to send tourists into space. 

Branson’s company has over 600 reservations for seats and $80 million in deposits for 90 minute flights, with famous faces Ashton Kutcher, Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber all signing up.

The flights cost $250,000 a ticket, with the craft seating six passengers in total, and include several minutes of weightlessness.  

Branson (pictured) is competing with Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin to become the first to send tourists into space

Branson (pictured) is competing with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to become the first to send tourists into space

HOW DOES RICHARD BRANSON’S VIRGIN GALACTIC CONDUCT ITS SPACE FLIGHTS?

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch.

Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo.

WhiteKnightTwo is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres).

The first WhiteKnightTwo, VMS Eve – which Virgin Galactic has used on all of its test flights – was rolled-out in 2008 and has a high-altitude, heavy payload capacity.

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Once SpaceShipTwo has propelled itself into space its engines shut off for a period of weightlessness before returning home

Unlike other commercial spaceflight companies, such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic initiates its flights without using a traditional rocket launch. Instead, the firm launches its passenger-laden SpaceShipTwo and other craft from a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. Once SpaceShipTwo has propelled itself into space its engines shut off for a period of weightlessness before returning home

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space.

Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to build more in future.

Once released from WhiteKnightTwo, SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor engages ‘within seconds’, according to Virgin Galactic.

The craft will then fly approximately three and a half times the speed of sound (2,600mph/4,300kph) into suborbital space, reaching up to 360,890ft (110,000 metres) above the Earth’s surface.

WhiteKnightTwo (artist's impression) is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres)

WhiteKnightTwo (artist’s impression) is a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft, designed to carry SpaceShipTwo up to an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres)

This altitude is defined as beyond the edge of outer space by Nasa.

After the rocket motor has fired for around a minute, the pilots will shut it down, and passengers can then take off their seatbelts to experience weightlessness for several minutes.

The pilots will manoeuvre the spaceship to give the best possible views of Earth and space while raising the vehicle’s wings to its ‘feathered’ re-entry configuration, which decelerates the craft and stabilises its descent.

As gravity pulls the spaceship back towards the Earth’s upper atmosphere, astronauts will return to their seats ready to return to our planet.

At around 50,000 feet (15,240 metres), after re-entry, the pilot will return the spaceship’s wings to their normal configuration, ready to glide back to Earth for a smooth runway landing. 

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured) - the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights - though the firm is expected to produce more in future

Once it reaches 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry six passengers and two pilots into space. Virgin Galactic has named its first SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity (pictured) – the craft that the company has used in all of its test flights – though the firm is expected to produce more in future

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