Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic just unveiled a new space plane that'll one day carry astronaut wannabees to the fringes of space.
This vehicle will replace the one that fatally crashed more than a year ago and is supposed to be not only safer but also smarter this time around. Tickets to ride this thing are likely well out of your price range, but if you're still interested in what it's called, how it works, and what makes it different from the company's old spacecraft, we've explained all you need to know.
New SpaceShipTwo: What is Virgin Galactic?
Virgin Galactic is Virgin Group's spaceflight company founded by Sir Richard Branson in 2004. It is developing commercial spacecraft, with the purpose of providing suborbital spaceflights to paying space tourists. It also conducts suborbital launches for space science missions as well as orbital launches of small satellites. It eventually plans to provide orbital human spaceflights too.
New SpaceShipTwo: What is VSS Enterprise?
The VSS Enterprise was Virgin Galactic's first SpaceShipTwo spaceplane. It was built by Scaled Composites, named after the USS Enterprise from the Star Trek TV series, had its first flight in 2010, and was intended to be the first of five suborbital spacecraft for Virgin Galactic. It broke apart during its fourth flight in late 2014 due to a co-pilot error. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury died in the accident.
New SpaceShipTwo: What is VSS Unity?
Virgin Galactic unveiled its new SpaceShipTwo on 19 February 2016 at a ceremony at the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. Professor Stephen Hawking dubbed it the VSS Unity. This spacecraft will bring space tourists into sub-orbital space in the near feature. The VSS Unity replaced the SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise that crashed during a test flight in 2014.
New SpaceShipTwo: Is VSS Unity different from VSS Enterprise?
The VSS Unity is the first vehicle to be manufactured by The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing arm.
It looks nearly identical to its predecessor and is able to launch and re-enter the Earth's atmosphere like before. It's also more automated, has new fail-safes to prevent pilots from making mistakes, and is equipped with a rocket engine that uses a different rubber-like fuel for more efficient combustion. These changes haven't been tested in flight.
Over 700 engineers worked on the rocket. It is designed to carry up to six passengers and two crew members on a five-minute flight. During flight, the spaceship will be hauled beneath the wing of a larger aircraft and released at an altitude of about 45,000 feet. It'll soar before rocketing about 62 miles above Earth, at which point it will start falling back toward Earth.
New SpaceShipTwo: How much does the trip cost?
Virgin Galactic has not yet set a firm timeline for carrying tourists into space, but pre-sale tickets for the trip cost $250,000 (£160,000) each.
Hundreds of people have already reserved a seat on the sub-orbital spaceplane, including celebrities like Ashton Kutcher, Leonardo DiCaprio, Angelina Jolie, and Justin Bieber. The VSS Unity will remain on the ground after its unveiling however, as it must go through "full-vehicle tests of her electrical systems and all of her moving parts," the company said on its website.
New SpaceShipTwo: Will you need to wear a space suit?
Virgin Galactic partnered with a high-end fashion brand known as Y-3 to ensure everyone aboard its space ships look mighty spiffy.
Y-3 is a collaboration between Adidas and Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto. It created sleek-looking apparel for future pilots, operations team members on the ground, and astronauts. The line features dark-coloured, lightweight material, with zippers going up the legs and torsos. Everything has a tight fit and is comfortable enough to support a natural seating position.