Virgin Galactic Space Plane: What We Know

The V.S.S. Unity is making its fourth trip to space.,

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What is Virgin Galactic’s space plane, and what will it do?

  • July 11, 2021, 9:17 a.m. ET

The rocket plane, a type called SpaceShipTwo, is about the size of an executive jet. In addition to the two pilots, there will be four people in the cabin. This particular SpaceShipTwo is named V.S.S. Unity.

To get off the ground, Unity is carried by a larger plane to an altitude of about 50,000 feet. There, Unity will be released, and the rocket plane’s motor will ignite. The acceleration will make people on board feel a force up to 3.5 times their normal weight on the way to an altitude of more than 50 miles.

At the top of the arc, those on board will be able to see the blackness of space as well as the curve of Earth from the plane’s windows. They will also be able get out of their seats and experience about four minutes of apparent weightlessness. Fifty miles up, Earth’s downward gravitational pull is essentially just as strong as it is on the ground; rather, the passengers will be falling at the same pace as the plane around them.

ImageV.S.S. Unity during its May 22 test flight.
V.S.S. Unity during its May 22 test flight.Credit…Virgin Galactic, via Reuters

The two tail booms at the back of the space plane rotate up to a “feathered” configuration that creates more drag and stability, allowing the plane to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere more gently. This configuration makes SpaceShipTwo more like a badminton shuttlecock, which always falls with the pointy side oriented down, than a plane.

Still, the forces felt by the passengers on the way down will be greater than on the way up, reaching six times the force of gravity.

Once the plane is back in the atmosphere, the tail booms rotate back down, and the plane will glide to a landing. The whole flight may take less than two hours.

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