Sir Richard Branson, head of Virgin Galactic. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
Sir Richard Branson, head of Virgin Galactic. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

Washington — Virgin Galactic is preparing for a new flight test on Thursday that aims to fly higher and faster than before towards the edge of space.

The US company, run by British tycoon Richard Branson, is aiming to be the first to take tourists on brief trips into micro-gravity.

Virgin Galactic’s fourth flight test on the VSS Unity is scheduled for Thursday, weather permitting. The flight will take off from a spaceport in Mojave, California.

The vessel does not launch from Earth but is carried to a higher altitude — about 15km high — attached to an airplane. Then, two pilots on the VSS Unity fire the engines towards the frontier of space, typically defined as an altitude of 100km.

In July, after burning the rocket motor for 42 seconds, the VSS Unity reached a height of 51km, a part of the atmosphere called the mesosphere. Commercial airplanes typically fly at an altitude of about 10km.

The VSS Unity reached a top speed of more than 2,400km/h, or beyond Mach 2.

“Overall, the goal of this flight is to fly higher and faster than previous flights,” Virgin Galactic said in a statement. “If all goes to plan, our pilots will experience an extended period of micro-gravity as VSS Unity coasts to apogee, although, being pilots,  they will remain securely strapped in throughout.”

Another US rocket company, Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is also racing to be the first to send tourists to space, but using a small rocket to get there.

Virgin’s first flight date has been pushed back multiple times, following a test flight accident that killed a co-pilot in 2014.  Branson told CNN in November that he hoped to send people to space “before Christmas”. More than 600 clients have already paid $250,000 for a ticket.