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Virgin Galactic unveils new 'SpaceShipThree' space plane

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Commercial spaceflight company Virgin Galactic unveiled the piloted space plane “VSS Imagine” on Tuesday. 

The spacecraft’s release marks the first of Virgin Galactic’s next-generation SpaceShip III class of vehicles. 

In a news release accompanying futuristic video footage, the company announced that VSS Imagine — built at Virgin Galactic’s facility in Mojave, California — will begin ground testing with glide flights set for this summer.

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“The spaceship showcases Virgin Galactic’s innovation in design and astronaut experience. Imagine also demonstrates progress toward efficient design and production, as Virgin Galactic works to scale the business for the long-term,” the company wrote. “VSS Imagine will commence ground testing, with glide flights planned for this summer from Spaceport America in New Mexico.”

Spaceport America is Virgin Galactic’s commercial hub.

Shiny and silver with a sleek breakthrough livery design, the “modular” vehicle reflects its surrounding environment and provides thermal protection. 

With the capacity for two pilots and six crew members, both VSS Imagine and VSS Unity — the first Virgin Galactic spaceship to enter service operating the reusable SpaceShipTwo spaceflight system — lift off by dropping from a carrier aircraft before their rocket motor blasts off and upward.

A test model for future space vehicles, Virgin Galactic says the VSS Imagine is built to “enable improved performance in terms of maintenance access and flight rate.”

Introducing VSS Imagine, the first SpaceShip III in the Virgin Galactic Fleet

Introducing VSS Imagine, the first SpaceShip III in the Virgin Galactic Fleet
(Virgin Galactic Press)

The company also pledged that manufacturing would progress on VSS Inspire — the second SpaceShip III vehicle within its fleet.

“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, said Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier. 

VSS Unity is scheduled for its next test flight in May.

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Virgin Galactic is targeting flying 400 flights per year.

Colglazier told TechCrunch on Tuesday that the team had taken what they had learned from the VSS Unity and built-in what was necessary to the VSS Imagine in order to turn the ships at a faster pace and to achieve that goal.

Introducing VSS Imagine, the first SpaceShip III in the Virgin Galactic Fleet

Introducing VSS Imagine, the first SpaceShip III in the Virgin Galactic Fleet
(Virgin Galactic Press)

More than 600 people have booked a ride thus far, at a price of around $250,000 per seat, according to Space.com.

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Virgin founder Richard Branson said that the Virgin Galactic spaceships are being built to “deliver a new, transforming perspective” to thousands who will “soon be able to experience the wonder of space for themselves.”

“As a SpaceShip III class of vehicle, Imagine is not just beautiful to look at, but represents Virgin Galactic’s growing fleet of spaceships. All great achievements, creations and changes start with an idea,” he said. “Our hope is for all those who travel to space to return with fresh perspectives and new ideas that will bring positive change to our planet.’’

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