ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico: Virgin Galactic cut short a test flight of its suborbital SpaceShipTwo Unity plane on Saturday (Dec 12), safely returning its pilots to Spaceport America in New Mexico after the rocket motor's ignition sequence failed to complete.
Richard Branson's space tourism company, which is preparing for commercial flights next year, was aiming to send the air-launched Unity spaceplane to an altitude as high as 50 miles (about 80km) to test its cabin experience and boosters in-flight.
The suborbital spaceplane was carried to an altitude of roughly 44,000 feet (13,410 meters) by its twin-fuselage mothership dubbed White Knight 2. It detached from the carrier plane around 9:15 am local time, but a live video stream appeared to show the engines firing only for a brief moment.
“After being released from its mothership, the spaceship’s onboard computer that monitors the rocket motor lost connection,” CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement. “As designed, this triggered a fail-safe scenario that intentionally halted ignition of the rocket motor.”
The pilots flew back to Spaceport America and landed gracefully as usual.
“As we do with every test flight, we are evaluating all the data, including the root cause assessment of the computer communication loss,” Colglazier said. "We look forward to sharing information on our next flight window in the near future.”
Before first announcing the spacecraft's safe return to land and then the problem with the rocket, Virgin Galactic's updates on Twitter about the flight's progress were cryptic and sparse during a 15-minute period that began with an announcement that the spacecraft was “go for release" from the carrier aircraft after reaching high altitude.
"The ignition sequence for the rocket motor did not complete," Virgin Galactic said on Twitter. "Vehicle and crew are in great shape. We have several motors ready at Spaceport America. We will check the vehicle and be back to flight soon."
The flight of Unity was intended to gather crucial test data needed to advance its commercial spaceflight license with the US Federal Aviation Administration before flying customers for the first time next year.
For US$250,000 a ticket, passengers who have signed up for the suborbital flight aboard the rocket-powered plane will strap into six custom seats and peer out of the cabin's 12 circular windows as they ascend some 60 miles above Earth.
The company, founded in 2004 by British billionaire Branson, has 600 customers signed up to fly and more than 400 more who have expressed interest, with Branson expected to be aboard one of the first flights.