Virgin Galactic has unveiled a new version of its space tourism vessel, the SpaceShipTwo.
Dubbed the VSS Unity by none other than Stephen Hawking, this model looks slightly more like a traditional airplane than its predecessor, also named SpaceShipTwo.
This new ship still has two massive wings, but they have more of a smooth backwards swoop than those of the first craft. There's also a private jet feel to the fuselage.
The new SpaceShipTwo comes after a fatal October 2014 test 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 in the incident.
Virgin Galactic committed to further testing for the new SpaceShipTwo, accounting for human error along with any possible system failures, the company said in a blog post Thursday.
Today's unveiling is just the beginning of 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 its 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.
The craft will work its way up to 50 miles (80km), achieving NASA's and the US Air Force's requirement for astronaut status, and finally breach 62 miles (100km) above the planet's surface. It's at that milestone that the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale will recognize its occupants as astronauts.
The company still hasn't said when it plans to take tourists up into space, though the first tickets have already been sold.
Virgin Galactic said getting civilians into space isn't a race, but it's not the only private company working on developing spacecraft. SpaceX is the most well known other name, but there are many more participating in this 21st century space race.
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