Virgin Galactic has unveiled its newest spacecraft, VSS Imagine, the first vehicle produced under a new assembly system that’s critical to the company’s goal of offering daily tourism flights to space.
The Imagine “demonstrates progress toward efficient design and production,” the company said in a statement Tuesday. The new manufacturing process will reduce maintenance and enable a quicker flight tempo as the company seeks to “scale the business for the long-term.”
The spacecraft will soon begin ground testing, with glide tests planned this summer at Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America facility in New Mexico.
The shiny Imagine features a “mirror-like” exterior coating for thermal protection, Virgin Galactic said.
“Today we unveiled our SpaceShip III class of vehicles, marking the beginning of the Virgin Galactic fleet,” noted Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic.
“VSS Imagine and Inspire are stunning ships that will take our future astronauts on an incredible voyage to space, and their names reflect the aspirational nature of human spaceflight.”
The company, founded by billionaire Richard Branson, wants to make commercial space travel commonplace, with a target of reaching 400 flights annually from New Mexico and expanding globally.
Virgin Galactic was hit by delays in its path toward customer flights by pandemic-related setbacks and electrical problems on its current spacecraft, VSS Unity.
That vessel’s next test flight will be in May, following a failure to launch in December that revealed the issue and led to a revamp of some systems on the vehicle. The glitches also derailed a test flight planned last month.
“We are still planning and feel great about May as the next test flight,” Colglazier said. The company hasn’t detected any other issues after a thorough review of all Unity’s systems, he said.
Engineers traced the problems to electromagnetic interference and expected to complete rework in about nine weeks, the company said on February 25. The vehicle’s rocket failed to ignite during a December 12 test flight, triggering an investigation of the VSS Unity’s systems.
After building the initial three craft, Virgin Galactic will switch to a slightly different spacecraft design, called a Delta class vehicle, that will lead to faster assembly times and less maintenance.
The company is also exploring whether to contract parts of the assembly work for its carrier “motherships” which drop the spacecraft from high altitudes, Colglazier said.
Virgin Galactic plans to resume ticket sales after it flies Branson to space this summer and to begin tackling its customer backlog of about 600 people in 2022. The first formal “revenue flight” will be for the Italian Air Force in late summer or early fall, following Branson’s excursion.
All the flights will be from Spaceport America although the company, based in Las Cruces, New Mexico, has said it plans to operate from additional spaceports in the future.
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