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Virgin Galactic Takes Crew of 3 to Altitude of 55 Miles

SpaceShipTwo, built by British billionaire Richard Branson to carry tourists into space.

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The SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity passenger craft makes its final approach for a landing at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California, Feb. 22, 2019. VOA

Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft reached an altitude of more than 55 miles (88.5 kilometers) on Friday, carrying for the first time a passenger in addition to its two pilots.

SpaceShipTwo, built by British billionaire Richard Branson to carry tourists into space, launched from California’s Mojave desert and flew to an altitude of 55.87 miles (89.9 kms), the company said.

The US definition of space is anything over an altitude of 50 miles. The Virgin craft made it past that for the first time in December, reaching an altitude of 50.9 miles.

Branson announced with great fanfare at the time that it was the first time since NASA ended its space shuttle program in 2011 that an American vessel had carried humans into space.

However, the Virgin craft still has not crossed the internationally accepted boundary between Earth’s outer atmosphere and space, known as the Karman Line, which is set at an altitude of 62 miles (100 kms).

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Virgin Galactic rocket plane, the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, with SpaceShipTwo passenger craft takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California, Feb. 22, 2019. VOA

“SpaceShipTwo, welcome back to space,” wrote Virgin Galactic as it Tweeted updates throughout the event, without sending out any live footage.

The spacecraft travelled at a speed of Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound in its ascent, and landed without incident at the Mojave spaceport.

It is designed to carry six passengers, but test flights are years behind schedule in large part because of an accident that killed a test pilot in 2014.

Branson told AFP earlier this month that he hoped the test flights would be far enough ahead by July that he would be able to join a flight.

For the first time Friday, the flight carried a passenger, Virgin Galactic’s Beth Moses, who will be in charge of training the company’s future space tourists.

To take off from the ground, SpaceShipTwo is carried by another larger plane, WhiteKnightTwo, which resembles a combination of two airplanes attached by their wing tips.

Virgin Galactic
The SpaceShipTwo passenger craft rockets away from the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane above Mojave, California, Feb. 22, 2019. VOA

When it is high enough, it releases the spaceship which then fires up its own rocket engine and ascends for roughly a minute into space.

At the apogee, its passengers float in zero-gravity for several minutes. It then descends and glides back to the landing strip.

Branson’s main rival is Blue Origin, created by billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos told an audience in New York this week that his New Shepard suborbital vehicle would start flying people later this year and to a greater altitude than SpaceShipTwo.

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“One of the issues that Virgin Galactic will have to address, eventually, is that they are not flying above the Karman Line, not yet,” Bezos said, quoted by Space News.

New Shepard has already flown above the Karman Line, but not with people on board. (VOA)

Next Story

NASA’s New Horizon Spacecraft To Cover An Even More Distant World

At the very least, the nuclear-powered New Horizons will continue to observe objects from afar, as it pushes deeper into the Kuiper Belt.

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This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft. NASA launched the probe in 2006; it’s about the size of a baby grand piano. VOA

The spacecraft team that brought us close-ups of Pluto will ring in the new year by exploring an even more distant and mysterious world.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will zip past the scrawny, icy object nicknamed Ultima Thule soon after the stroke of midnight.

One billion miles beyond Pluto and an astounding 4 billion miles from Earth (1.6 billion kilometers and 6.4 billion kilometers), Ultima Thule will be the farthest world ever explored by humankind. That’s what makes this deep-freeze target so enticing; it’s a preserved relic dating all the way back to our solar system’s origin 4.5 billion years ago. No spacecraft has visited anything so primitive.

“What could be more exciting than that?” said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, part of the New Horizons team.

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In this image of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, different colors represent different compositions of surface ices, revealing a surprisingly active body. (Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute) VOA

Lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, expects the New Year’s encounter to be riskier and more difficult than the rendezvous with Pluto: The spacecraft is older, the target is smaller, the flyby is closer and the distance from us is greater.

New horizons 

NASA launched the spacecraft in 2006; it’s about the size of a baby grand piano. It flew past Pluto in 2015, providing the first close-up views of the dwarf planet. With the wildly successful flyby behind them, mission planners won an extension from NASA and set their sights on a destination deep inside the Kuiper Belt. As distant as it is, Pluto is barely in the Kuiper Belt, the so-called Twilight Zone stretching beyond Neptune. Ultima Thule is in the Twilight Zone’s heart.

Ultima Thule 

This Kuiper Belt object was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. Officially known as 2014 MU69, it got the nickname Ultima Thule in an online vote. In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world. When New Horizons first glimpsed the rocky iceball in August it was just a dot. Good close-up pictures should be available the day after the flyby.

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This composite image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed “Ultima Thule,” indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it on Aug. 16, 2018, made by the New Horizons spacecraft. VOA

Are we there yet ?

New Horizons will make its closest approach in the wee hours of Jan. 1 — 12:33 a.m. EST. The spacecraft will zoom within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima Thule, its seven science instruments going full blast. The coast should be clear: Scientists have yet to find any rings or moons around it that could batter the spacecraft. New Horizons hurtles through space at 31,500 mph (50,700 kph), and even something as minuscule as a grain of rice could demolish it. “There’s some danger and some suspense,” Stern said at a fall meeting of astronomers. It will take about 10 hours to get confirmation that the spacecraft completed — and survived — the encounter.

Possibly twins 

Scientists speculate Ultima Thule could be two objects closely orbiting one another. If a solo act, it’s likely 20 miles (32 kilometers) long at most. Envision a baked potato. “Cucumber, whatever. Pick your favorite vegetable,” said astronomer Carey Lisse of Johns Hopkins. It could even be two bodies connected by a neck. If twins, each could be 9 miles to 12 miles (15 kilometers to 20 kilometers) in diameter.

Mapping mission 

Scientists will map Ultima Thule every possible way. They anticipate impact craters, possibly also pits and sinkholes, but its surface also could prove to be smooth. As for color, Ultima Thule should be darker than coal, burned by eons of cosmic rays, with a reddish hue. Nothing is certain, though, including its orbit, so big that it takes almost 300 of our Earth years to circle the sun. Scientists say they know just enough about the orbit to intercept it.

Pluto
NASA launched the spacecraft in 2006; it’s about the size of a baby grand piano. It flew past Pluto in 2015. VOA

Comparing flybys 

New Horizons will get considerably closer to Ultima Thule than it did to Pluto: 2,220 miles versus 7,770 miles (3,500 kilometers vs. 12,500 kilometers). At the same time, Ultima Thule is 100 times smaller than Pluto and therefore harder to track, making everything more challenging. It took 4 { hours, each way, for flight controllers at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, to get a message to or from New Horizons at Pluto. Compare that with more than six hours at Ultima Thule.

Also Read: NASA Likely to Continue Flying its Astronauts on The Russian Soyuz

What’s next 

It will take almost two years for New Horizons to beam back all its data on Ultima Thule. A flyby of an even more distant world could be in the offing in the 2020s, if NASA approves another mission extension and the spacecraft remains healthy. At the very least, the nuclear-powered New Horizons will continue to observe objects from afar, as it pushes deeper into the Kuiper Belt. There are countless objects out there, waiting to be explored. (VOA)