Virgin Galactic cuts quick spaceflight try after engine abort, pilots safely return to land

Virgin Galactic’s carrier aircraft releases its spacecraft Unity during a glide flight test.

Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic’s latest spaceflight test was cut short after the engine of its SpaceShipTwo vehicle “Unity” did not fully ignite as it attempted to launch above New Mexico on Saturday.

While no passengers were on board, Unity was piloted by CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay for the flight. Virgin Galactic was aiming to reach the edge of space for the third time, in its inaugural spaceflight from its operating base in New Mexico. The spacecraft returned to land on the runway at Spaceport America, which is about 50 miles north of the city of Las Cruces.

“The ignition sequence for the rocket motor did not complete. Vehicle and crew are in great shape. We have several motors ready at Spaceport America. We will check the vehicle and be back to flight soon,” the company said in a tweet.

Virgin Galactic confirmed the spacecraft successfully returned in a glide to land back at Spaceport America in New Mexico, where it took off from under its carrier jet aircraft about an hour earlier. The company noted both pilots are “safe and sound.”

“Wheel stop, SpaceShipTwo Unity,” Virgin Galactic said in a tweet.

An unofficial webcast hosted by space news site NASASpaceflight appeared to show the spacecraft’s engine aborted after firing momentarily. SpaceShipTwo was released from under its carrier aircraft at about 40,000 feet altitude, with Unity’s motor appearing the ignite briefly before shutting down. Typically the spacecraft is released by the jet and then fires its rocket motor for more than a minute, hitting speeds of about three times the speed of sound.

Virgin Galactic’s spaceflight attempt was the company’s first in nearly 22 months, with its previous spaceflight in February 2019 when Unity reached an altitude of nearly 90 kilometers on a test launch from the Mojave Desert in California. The company is working toward beginning commercial service flights from Spaceport America, where it moved its operations from its development and manufacturing facilities at Mojave’s Air and Space Port.

Saturday’s flight was the first of three remaining spaceflight tests the company plans to conduct to complete development of its spacecraft system, the third of which will carry founder Sir Richard Branson. The impact of the aborted test on Virgin Galactic’s schedule is yet to be determined, with the Branson flight previously planned for first quarter of 2021.

In addition to the two pilots, Unity’s flight on Saturday carried micro-gravity experiments for NASA, under contracts awarded through the agency’s Flight Opportunities program.

Virgin Galactic has about 600 customer reservations on its books, most of which were sold at price of $200,000 to $250,000 a ticket several years ago. The company plans to re-open ticket sales fully in 2021 after Branson’s flight, although it has not said how much tickets will cost once sales reopen. Company executives have previously said that the high demand for tickets means Virgin Galactic expects to increase its prices substantially for first commercial flights.

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