Virgin Galactic’s carrier plane has just taken to the skies for the first time in almost 16 months.
The plane, known as VMS Eve, conducted a test flight from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port on Wednesday (February 15), Virgin Galactic announced in a quick Twitter update (opens in new tab). The flight lasted more than 2.5 hours and reached a maximum altitude of about 41,500 feet (12,650 meters), according to SpaceNews. (opens in new tab)quoted the flight tracking data.
It was Eve’s first launch since late October 2021 (opens in new tab)as the plane flew from Spaceport America in New Mexico to Mojave for a series of modifications and upgrades.
On photos: Virgin Galactic’s first fully manned spaceflight with Richard Branson
VMS Eve is a key element of Virgin Galactic’s space tourism hardware. During operational flights, the aircraft will carry the company’s VSS Unity spaceliner with six passengers to an altitude of approximately 50,000 feet (15,000 m). The piloted Unity then free falls and launches its rocket motor, which makes its way to suborbital space.
The duo have made four such spaceflights so far, most recently in July 2021 when Unity carried four passengers – including Virgin Group founder Richard Branson – to and from the Last Frontier.
Shortly after this flight, Virgin Galactic announced that it would upgrade Eve and Unity and put both vehicles out of service for a while. This work involved replacing Eve’s center pylon, the point between the plane’s two fuselages to which Unity is attached.
According to Virgin Galactic senior flight test director Kelly Latimer, Wednesday’s flight helped test the new pylon, among other things, although Eve flew solo.
“One thing we’re going to do is – without a spacecraft attached to it – take it out to high altitude, cold soak it (make sure everything works in extremely cold temperatures), then we hit the hooks that would normally be attached to the spacecraft and collecting data on their performance,” Latimer said in a Q&A the company released on Wednesday (opens in new tab).
VSS Unity is back at Spaceport America, and Eve is likely to join the spacecraft there soon, Latimer said.
“After we complete system checks during the first flight test, Eve will fly what is known as a ferry flight to New Mexico,” she said in Virgin Galactic’s Q&A. “The team is excited to see Eve and Unity reunited, and we have some more testing to do with the mothership and spacecraft together – including more ground testing, gliding and powered flight to complete the necessary validations of the vehicle’s modifications.”
When these reviews are complete, Virgin Galactic is expected to be ready to resume manned spaceflights. The first of these, a research mission for the Italian Air Force, is scheduled to take off sometime this spring, Virgin Galactic officials said.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out there (opens in new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaelwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).