Virgin Galactic has unveiled a new version of the vessel it wants to use to take tourists into space.
The new SpaceShipTwo looks slightly more like a traditional airplane than its predecessor, also named SpaceShipTwo. It still has two massive wings, but they have more of a smooth backwards swoop than the wings of the first craft.
Like the older model, the space tourism rocket carries two pilots and up to six passengers. It will carry its occupants to the veritable first layer of space, let them experience weightlessness, and then glide them back down to Earth.
The new SpaceShipTwo comes after a deadly October 2014 flight of the first model. The craft broke apart after the co-pilot prematurely deployed a system intended to slow it down upon re-entry. The co-pilot was killed.
Virgin Galactic committed to further testing for the new SpaceShipTwo, accounting for human error along with any other possible system failures, the company said in a blog post Thursday.
Today’s unveiling is just the beginning in a new phase of testing for Virgin Galactic, one that doesn’t include going into space right away.
First, it plans to conduct ground tests to put the fully assembled craft through the paces. Then, it will move to “captive carry flights,” where SpaceShipTwo is attached to its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo.
Next comes free flying glide testing under 45,000 feet (14km). After that, rocket-powered tests will commence, eventually crossing 100,000 feet (31km), above 99% of Earth’s atmosphere. It will work its way up to 50 miles (80km), achieving the NASA and US Air Force requirement for astronaut status, and finally breach 62 miles (100km) above the planet’s surface. It’s that milestone that the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale will recognize occupants as astronauts.
The company hasn’t said when it plans to take tourists up into space, though the first tickets have been bought.