Space Sunday: Unity 22 flies

A view from the tail boom camera on VSS Unity, during Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 flight, July 11th, 2021. Credit: virgin Galactic

How would you really like to celebrate your birthday? We all have our own dreams of the perfect celebration – and for Sir Richard Branson, it meant becoming an astronaut just 7 days short of his 71st birthday.

Branson was one of six people who took to the skies over New Mexico in the first “full” passenger carrying flight of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, in what amounts to one of the last test flights before the company starts flying fair-paying passengers on sub-orbital trips to the very edge of space.

Sir Richard Branson (2nd from right) and fellow “passengers” (all of whom had roles to play during the flight) Colin Bennett, Beth Moses (making her 2nd flight aboard VSS Unity) and Sirisha Bandla ahead of the Unity 22 flight, July 11th, 2021. Credit: Virgin Galactic 

The flight – called Unity 22 to mark the 22 flight of the spacecraft christened by the late Stephen Hawking – took Branson, together with Lead Operations Engineer Colin Bennett and the company’s Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations Sirisha Bandla, both of whom were also making their first flights on the vehicle, together with Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses making her return to space on the vehicle, to a peak altitude in excess of 86 kilometres. At the controls were veteran Virgin Galactic pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci.

The entire flight was live streamed by Virgin Galactic in a special show hosted (rather cheesily, it must be said) by Stephen Colbert, although the stream was also carried by a number of You Tube channels such as, from whom some of the images used here were captured.

MSS Eve carries VSS Unity into the skies over New Mexico, July 11th, 2021. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Weather had initially interfered with things, forcing the take-off of the mated MSS Eve and VSS Unity to be delayed, but at 14:35 UTC, MSS Eve – named after Branson’s late mother, and to whom he credits his outlook on life and his drive to follow his dreams – took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico, Unity mounted on her main wing spar, to climb into a perfect sky above the Virgin Galactic base of operations.

The climb to the planned release altitude of 15 km took some 50 minutes, the two craft closely observed by chase planes. At ten minutes prior to release, both craft entered a final check-out phase of the flight, with Eve maintaining altitude as both her flight crew and Mackay and Masucci worked with ground-side Mission control to confirm all was in readiness for Unity’s flight. At this point, Unity also switched its internal power, allowing her flight control and avionics to be confirmed as ready for release.

The crew in Unity’s main cabin, with Branson forward left, and Moses, forward right, shortly before the release, July 11th, 2021. Credit: Virgin Galactic

With everything checked and ready, and Eve still holding steady, the pyrotechnics that would blow the retaining bolts holding Unity to Eve were armed. Thirty seconds later they fired, separate the two vehicle, and Unity entered a very shallow dive while Eve started a climbing turn to move away from the wake of Unity’s motor.

That motor fired 2 seconds after release, and within 3 seconds had doubled Unity’s forward airspeed to carry it through Mach 1. With the motor firing smoothly, the pilots placed the vehicle into its “Gamma Turn”, essentially pointing the nose straight up  as it continued to accelerate.

VSS Unity is released from MSS Eve, observed by a chase plane. Credit: Virgin Galactic

At 31 seconds after release, Unity passed through Mach 2, climbing rapidly to reach Mach 3 at 55 seconds from release. Just over 10 seconds later, the motor shut down, but Unity continued to climb, and the flight crew initiated the “feather”, raising the vehicle’s tail booms relative to the hull by 60º.

“Feathering” allowed the craft to effectively “back flip” whilst still climbing, so the windows along the top of the cabin to face towards the Earth whilst the cabin itself entered a period of micro-gravity as Unity headed towards an apogee of approximately 86.77 km, where the flight crew used the reaction control system (RCS), small gas-powered jets, to re-orient the vehicle ready to start a belly-first drop back into the denser atmosphere.

An artist’s impression of VSS Unity with its tail boom “feathered” and the vehicle oriented for the drop back into the denser atmosphere. Credit: Virgin Galactic

This apogee point – 86-ish kilometres – has become a bone of contention between Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos / Blue Origin in the week or so since the Unity 22 flight was announced, as it is around 20 km below the Kármán line. The latter is recognised by many as being the divide between atmospheric flight from space flight, thus marking those who cross it as astronauts. As  it is a line Virgin Galactic does not cross (but Blue Origin’s New Shepherd does), Bezos has denigrated Branson’s flight in comparison to his own, which is due to take place on July 20th.

However, whilst not reaching the 100 km mark, the Virgin Galactic flights do exceed 80 km altitude – which is regarded as the boundary between air and space by the US Air Force, NASA and the US Federal Aviation Authority – and so those flying with Virgin Galactic do qualify as astronauts. More to the point, an extra 20km of altitude doesn’t give passengers a more expanse view of Earth compared to 86 km, and the overall amount of time spent in micro gravity conditions aboard either vehicle is roughly the same.

Sir Richard Branson floats in the inverted cabin of VSS Unity, looking down at Earth. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Thus, any complaints from Blue Origin are more to do with trying to throw a degree of shade over the Unity 22 flight, in much the same way as Branson targeting July 11th for his flight to space was something of a thumbing of the nose at Bezos, who will by flying that first passenger-carrying flight of New Shepherd on July 20th.

It had been hoped that the flight would include live video from inside the vehicle, but other than the odd shot (that quickly broke up), the air-to-ground feed from VSS Unity had other ideas, up to and including Sir Richard Branson being able to give an address from space as had been planned.

Coming home: escorted by a low-level chase plane, VSS Unity turns onto finals in readiness for landing. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Following apogee, the “feathering” of the tail booms revealed the totally unique quality of the SpaceShip vehicle design, allowing the craft to drop almost shuttle-cock like back into the atmosphere, mush like a space capsule does, but at a velocity low enough to avoid any excessive frictional head being generated at it starts passing through denser air. Then, once the air had reached a point where the aero surfaces of the tail booms could help generate lift and provide aerodynamic flight control, the boom was lowered back to its horizontal position, turning VSS Unity into a glider as it descended back towards Spaceport America, its chase planes re-joining it as it reached lower altitudes.

Touch-down came at the same runway the craft departed from whilst slung beneath the MSS Eve, some 14 minutes and 20 seconds after Eve had released Unity. After roll-out along the runway, Unity was met by a fleet of land-rover vehicles comprising the medical vehicle, the tow vehicle and check-out team vehicle. Also in the procession were several Range Rover Astronaut Editions, a special edition of the famous 4×4 vehicle that will only be made to passengers who fly with Virgin Galactic (for an unspecified price), and which form part of a 10-year partnership between the two companies.

Touchdown: VSS Unity lands at Spaceport America at the end of the Unity 22 flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic

The crew and passenger remained aboard Unity which undergoing post-flight checks, and while the vehicle was safed and then towed back to the Virgin Galactic spaceport buildings, where family and friends of the crew, together with company employees,  were on hand to greet  the crew, and a special reception was held at which the four passengers spoke, and former Canadian astronaut and ISS Commander, Chris “Space Oddity” Hadfield presented the three – Branson, Bennett and  Bandla with their Virgin Galactic astronaut wings.

Also, and in return poke at Blue Origin, which auction a seat aboard the first passenger-carrying New Shepherd flight for charity, Branson announced a partnership with Omaze, the non-profit charity fundraiser, two offer the winner of a prize draw two tickets to fly aboard a Virgin Galactic vehicle in 2022, with the promise that if enough people join the draw, it may be repeated.

Chris Hadfield presents Sirisha Bandla with her Virgin Galactic astronaut wings, July 11th, 2021. Credit: Virgin Galactic

This first passenger-carrying flight with Virgin Galactic and the upcoming Blue Origin flight will not open the doors of space flight for everyone – prices alone at this point in time means that, outside of processional astronauts, space will remain the playground of the wealthy for some time to come. And who is to say that, should the volume of demand enable it, the current price tag might not come down considerably over the next decade or so?

China Completes First Station Spacewalk

The crew of China’s Tiangong space station have been getting down to some serious work since their arrival on June 17th, 2021.

The three-man crew of veteran tiakonauts Nie Haisheng (mission commander) and Liu Boming, together with rookie Tang Hongbo, have been hard at work on a series of “pre-commissioning” tasks intended to get the Tianhe core module of the fledgling station ready for operational use starting next year.

On July 4th (UTC, July 3rd, USA), Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo conducted a record-breaking EVA (for China), spending almost 7 hours outside the module carrying out a range of essential tasks that included installing foot restraints to the hull of the module to make working outside easier, mounting an extravehicular working platform on the station’s primary robotic arm and raising a panoramic camera that will allow crew in the station and mission control to observe external activities and generally monitor the exterior conditions of the station.

Shenzhou-12 spacewalker Liu Boming installs a work platform on the main robotic arm of the Tianhe module of China’s space station on July 4th, 2021. Credit: CNSA / CCTV

The EVA was the first completed by Chinese astronauts in 13 years – the last (and indeed, the first) taikonaut to make an EVA was Zhai Zhigang, during the 2008 Shenzhou-7 mission – and that was for a comparatively brief 22 minutes. For this trip outside, the two men used an updated version of the Feitian (“flying sky” or “flying diva”) extravehicular activity suit first tested by Zhai, and itself modelled on the Russian Orlan-M spacesuit.

Prior to the EVA, the crew carefully checked-out the space suits, which had been flown to the station separately aboard the Tianzhou-2 supply vehicle that preceded the crewed of Shenzhou-12 craft to the station. They also spent time preparing the main docking hub at the forward end of the Tianhe module, which will form the main egress / ingress point for all spacewalks.

During the EVA, commander Nie remained inside the station, but provided remote support for the spacewalkers using a second, smaller robot arm mounted on the module’s hull.

The EVA work was part of a flurry of activity for the Chinese space programme over the course of the last week

While it is not scheduled for launch until October, the Shenzhou-13 vehicle that will carry the second crew of three to Tiangong is being readied in case it needs to fly a “rescue” flight to the space station, and in addition, China completed three launches in just four days between July 2nd and July 6th.

The first of these launches was the commercial Jilin-1 Wideband-01B Earth observation satellite, which was delivered to a Sun-synchronous orbit by a Long March 2D launcher, together with a number of smaller payload items. This launch came from China’s third launch facility, the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre, which hasn’t featured as prominently in international reporting on Chinese space efforts as the country’s two other launch centres.

Then on July 5th, a Long March 4C lifted-off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre. Despite the vehicle shedding some external fuel insulation tiles as it started its ascent, it successfully delivered the Fengyun 3E meteorological satellite to orbit. Finally, on July 6th, the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre said farewell to a Long March 3C rocket carrying a Tianlian data tracking and relay communications satellite to geostationary orbit.

A Long March 3C rocket carrying a Tianlian data tracking and relay communications satellite lifts-off from China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Centre

Like NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS), Chain’s Tianlian system is a crucial element in enabling the country to communications between crewed vehicles in orbit and ground control stations. This new Tianlian satellite will provide an additional link from the ground and to crews aboard Shenzhou craft and on the Tiangong space station.