Bengaluru: Billionaire CEO of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson, flew to the edge of space on a rocket-powered spaceplane Sunday before returning to the surface of earth. The ship that flew Branson and his crew of five, including Indian-origin researcher Sirisha Bandla, was the company’s own vehicle VSS Unity.
The spacecraft was a demonstrator for the company’s space tourism flights. A specially designed plane called Mothership Eve flew the spacecraft to an altitude of 45,000 feet before it was released, after which it was powered and flown by the crew into its suborbital path (not entering into orbit around the earth), and reaching a height of 85 km. The crew experienced weightlessness for three minutes before returning to earth.
The crew was made up of CEO Branson, pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci, and three Virgin Galactic employees — astronaut trainer Beth Moses, flight engineer Colin Bennett, and Bandla, also the company’s vice president of government relations.
The mechanism of returning to earth was similar to that of a shuttlecock, as the spacecraft “feathered” its way back by pivoting Unity’s wing and tail fins upward to 60 degrees once out of the atmosphere and in space. This let Unity fall through the atmosphere with the same aerodynamics as a shuttlecock. Once it dropped to an altitude of 55,000 feet, the wing was then adjusted again to let the spaceplane glide through the atmosphere and drop down in controlled spiral movement.
The spaceplane touched down at Spaceport America, an all commercial spaceport in New Mexico, which has a 12,000-feet long runway. The entire duration of the flight from take off to landing took about an hour.
“Congratulations to all our wonderful team at Virgin Galactic for 17 years of hard hard work to get us this far,” said Branson said during a live feed as the VSS Unity spaceship glided back to Spaceport America in New Mexico.
I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now I'm an adult in a spaceship looking down to our beautiful Earth. To the next generation of dreamers: if we can do this, just imagine what you can do https://t.co/Wyzj0nOBgX #Unity22 @virgingalactic pic.twitter.com/03EJmKiH8V
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 11, 2021
Tickets to fly to space with Virgin Galactic are thought to cost up to $250,000, and a spokesperson for Virgin Galactic confirmed to the Wall Street Journal that billionaire and founder of SpaceX Elon Musk has also purchased a ticket to fly to space with them.
Later this month, yet another billionaire and founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, plans to attempt a suborbital trip on his company Blue Origin’s vehicle New Shepard. This spacecraft, a more traditional upright launcher, flies vertically and drops back with parachutes. Bezos is expected to fly on 20 July.
Where does space begin?
While the definition of where outer space continues to remain fluid, it is generally accepted by regulatory bodies to thought to begin at an altitude of 100 km. This is called the Kármán Line and is based on the fact that from this attitude onwards, no traditional aircraft can physically fly without non-atmospheric propulsion power.
However, while larger international bodies adopt the Kármán Line, many other agencies vary in their demarcation of atmosphere-space boundary altitude. The United Nations, Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) which is the governing body for air sports and human spaceflight, and weather agencies globally refer to the Kármán Line as the beginning of outer space.
However, the US space agency NASA and the American defence forces define the edge of space to begin at 50 miles or 80 km above the surface of earth. There have also been other space physics and atmospheric experts who have asked to revise the Kármán Line to a lower altitude based on more rigorous atmospheric physics.
Virgin’s flight flew beyond the atmosphere leading the crew to experience weightlessness, as will Blue Origin’s flight. However, the two differ in their heights reached. Virgin’s flight reached a height of 85km while Blue Origin is expected to cross the Kármán Line.
While Bezos himself congratulated Branson saying he “can’t wait to join the club” later this month, Blue Origin’s official account posted a tweet stating how their pilots “do not have an asterisk next to their name” to be described as astronauts, as they definitively cross the Kármán Line. The tweets added that only 4 per cent of the world considers 80km as the beginning of space.
Unlike SpaceX’s flights to the international space station, neither Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin enter orbit, and are both suborbital, capable of spending a only few minutes in microgravity before returning to earth.
On 20 July, Bezos will fly up to space with his brother Mark Bezos, an as-yet-unidentified winner of a $28 million bid, and one other passenger.