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SpaceShipTwo returns to flight after nearly two years

A Virgin Galactic spaceship returned to flight in a captive carry test for the first time in nearly two years since the fatal crash of the original prototype.

The second prototype, named VSS Unity, took off from Virgin Galactic’s base in Mojave, California, carried aloft by the WhiteKnightTwo mothership on 8 September, Virgin Galactic says.

The 3h43min test reached altitudes above 50,000ft, the normal launch altitude for SpaceShipTwo. After analysing data from the flight test, Virgin Galactic will decide if more captive carry tests are required before VSS Unity attempts glide tests, to be followed by powered flights.

Virgin Galactic called the return to flight an “emotional and fulfilling moment” in 12-year campaign to launch a commercial spaceline, offering thrilling rides from a new spaceport in New Mexico for six passengers on each suborbital trip into space.

SpaceShipOne, designed and built by Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan, proved the feasibility of launching a privately-funded vehicle into suborbital space in 2004, claiming the Ansari X-Prize. Rutan then teamed with Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson to develop SpaceShipTwo as a commercial transport.

After 54 successful flight tests, the first SpaceShipTwo broke apart in-flight in October 2014, killing one pilot and injuring the other. A federal investigation blamed the accident on a mistake by the co-pilot, who unlocked the feathering tails too early in the flight.

Branson quickly resumed development of SpaceShipTwo but moved the flight test programme in-house, creating the Spaceship Company to replace Northrop Grumman’s rapid prototyping subsidiary Scaled Composites.

The Spaceship Company has made several changes to the vehicle since the crash nearly two years ago. The VSS Unity’s rocket motor will be fueled by hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene, which is similar to the original chemistry for SpaceShipTwo. Another fuel was being tested on the flight that ended in disaster, although neither the fuel nor the motor played any role in the break-up.

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