Virgin Galactic flight to the edge of space: your questions answered | Virgin Galactic

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British business mogul Richard Branson is going to the edge of space with three other people. If the flight goes as planned, Branson will be the first billionaire to reach space on his own commercial vehicle, pipping rival Jeff Bezos by a little more than a week.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which is aiming to develop space tourism, will carry its founder on what will be the 22nd flight test for the company’s spaceplane VSS Unity. It will also be the first time the spaceplane will carry a full crew of two pilots and four mission specialists (one of whom is Branson).

VSS Unity will take flight from Virgin Atlantic’s base at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Virgin Atlantic will stream the flight on YouTube, starting at 9am ET.

What will Branson do on Sunday?

He will fly to space for an up-and-down test flight on VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital rocket-powered space plane. He will fly with two pilots, Dave MacKay and Michael Masucci, and three other passengers, Virgin’s chief astronaut instructor, Beth Moses, operations engineer, Colin Bennett, and Sirisha Bandla, Virgin’s vice-president for government affairs and research operations.

How will he fly?

The VSS Unity will take off from Virgin Galactic’s facilities on a mothership plane called VMS Eve. The mothership will carry and then drop VSS Unity at about 10 miles above sea level. The space plane will then immediately fire its rocket engines, tilt upwards and accelerate to three times the speed of sound to reach the edge of space.

There the spacecraft will drift in space as the pilots shut off the engine. The passengers will be able to see the Earth below through the plane’s windows. They will stay in this weightless state for a few minutes before the gravity of Earth begins to pull them down.

The VSS Unity will then rotate its wings and tail booms upwards. The plane then will plunge back to the Earth. At 10 miles above sea level, the wings will rotate back in place and glide to a runway landing.

Is it really going into space?

VSS Unity will reach 55 miles above sea level, which the United States air force and Nasa consider is past the boundary of outer space. But there is some dispute over where outer space begins.

How long will the space plane be up there?

The trip will last in total about two and a half hours. However, Branson and his team will only be weightless in space for four to five minutes before the craft tilts and returns to Earth.

How does this flight compare with Jeff Bezos’s planned flight?

While Branson will be flying on a spaceplane, Bezos will be taking a rocket to space. Blue Origin, Bezos’s space company, will be launching a booster rocket named New Shepard. When it reaches its highest arc, the capsule on the rocket will detach, giving passengers four minutes of weightlessness. New Shepard will reach a height of 65 miles, higher than Branson and above the Karman Line, which is seen as the boundary of space by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, an international standard-setting body for aeronautics and astronautics.

The capsule will then fall back into the atmosphere as parachutes are deployed to slowly bring it down. The whole trip will only take 11 minutes. New Shepard will also be the first time Blue Origin sends humans into space. Virgin Galactic has already successfully sent pilots on three space flights.

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