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Virgin Galactic to resume flight-testing in August

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two. Photograph courtesy of Virgin Galactic.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two. Photograph courtesy of Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic Ltd., the commercial space company founded by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, is set to resume test flights next month in a new spaceship that replaces the one that crashed in a fatal accident two years ago.

Aabar Investments of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, owns a 37.8 per cent stake in Virgin Galactic, and there are plans to build a spaceport for Virgin Galactic spaceflights just outside of the UAE capital city.

Virgin Galactic intends to complete ground tests in August and move to testing the spaceship in the skies while attached to an aircraft, according to Jonathan Firth, vice president at Virgin Galactic. The spaceship, named Unity, is scheduled to begin the final stage independent flight testing in 2017.

Sir Richard Branson is competing with founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin to be the first to ferry private adventurers to the edge of space in a reusable spacecraft. Virgin Galactic’s flights have been grounded since October 2014, after its SpaceShipTwo broke up in mid-air killing one of its test pilots. Meanwhile Bezos’s Blue Origin has successfully fired and landed its unmanned craft multiple times.

Virgin Galactic has yet to set a date for the first commercial flight, and Jonathan Firth said that this would depend on the results of the tests.

“We’ve thrown out so many dates in the past that we weren’t able to keep to, we’re being a bit more conservative this time,” he said in an interview in London.

The designer of both spaceships, Scaled Composites LLC, should have protected against the flaw that caused Unity’s predecessor to tear apart, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has said. The crash occurred when a pilot prematurely activated a brake, killing him and injuring a co-pilot.

The new spaceship has a similar design to the original one, which underwent about 30 powered flight tests before the incident.

Virgin Galactic has also created a satellite launch business that will use a Boeing 747 jumbo jet from Virgin Atlantic, to launch rockets from high altitudes. It is scheduled to begin flight tests in late 2017. Firth said the unit could be split off into a separate company using the Virgin brand.

“If you look at the history of Virgin, we’re always thinking of the structure of our organizations,” he said. “I wouldn’t discount anything.”

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