Virgin Galactic has unveiled the latest addition to its spacecraft line, VSS Imagine, which represents the first of its next-generation SpaceShip III class of space tourism vehicles.
Similar to the firm’s other spacecraft, VSS Unity, VSS Imagine will take people and scientific experiments to and from suborbital space. The newcomer features upgrades that will “enable improved performance in terms of maintenance access and flight rate,” company representatives said in a statement.
The SpaceShip III design also features a mirror-like, chrome-effect livery that reflects the vehicle’s surroundings, from the ground to space and back.
“As a SpaceShip III class of vehicle, Imagine is not just beautiful to look at but represents Virgin Galactic’s growing fleet of spaceships,” Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, said in a statement. “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.”
The rollout of VSS Imagine gives the space tourism company a second spacecraft to test, as Virgin Galactic continues to work through final development testing of VSS Unity, with its next spaceflight test expected in May.
“For us to make the business scale, at the places that we’re aspiring towards, we need two things: We need many more ships than we have right now and we also need the ships that we bring forward to be built in a way that they’re able to be maintained in a way that we can have much quicker [turnaround times between flights] than what we have with Unity,” said Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier.
VSS Imagine is the third spacecraft the company has built. In 2014, a disastrous test flight accident destroyed its VSS Enterprise, while VSS Unity has flown two spaceflights, most recently in February 2019.
Colglazier explained VSS Imagine was “designed in a way that’s taken the learnings we’ve had from all the flight testing on Unity,” allowing engineers at the firm to access things in the right way. “We know what things need to be tackled routinely so that we can give people easy access,” he added.
Unity and Imagine are two-pilot, six-passenger space planes designed to lift off beneath the wings of a carrier aircraft, which drops them at an altitude of around 50,000ft (15,000m). At that point, each spacecraft’s onboard rocket motor lights up, blasting the spacecraft up to suborbital space.
According to company representatives, Virgin Galactic passengers will get to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curve of Earth against the blackness of space. Over 600 people have booked a ride to date, at a price (most recently) of $250,000 (£181,000) per seat, they added.
Last summer, the company revealed the interior design of its space cabin which includes custom-designed seats and an “unrestricted astronaut float zone” for when the aircraft enters zero gravity.