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June 21, 2024

Virgin Galactic Reports Detached Pin During Recent Spaceflight, Notify FAA

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Feb 6, 2024

Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company owned by billionaire Richard Branson, notified U.S. regulators that an alignment pin failed to deploy as planned during a recent spaceflight. The detached pin, used to secure components of the aircraft to the main body in flight, did not pose a risk according to Virgin Galactic, but they are investigating the incident.

Background

Virgin Galactic is developing commercial spacecraft to fly private customers on brief trips to suborbital space. The company uses a mothership aircraft called VMS Eve that carries the SpaceShipTwo space plane up to an altitude of about 45,000 feet before releasing it. SpaceShipTwo fires its rocket motor to accelerate to speeds over Mach 3 and climb to the edge of space, with passengers experiencing a few minutes of weightlessness before gliding back to a runway landing.

The recent incident occurred during Virgin Galactic’s Unity 23 test flight on February 1st. The flight was the first to carry members from the Italian Air Force as payload specialists to evaluate the human-tended research experience, reaching an apogee of 366,000 feet.

The Incident

According to a report Virgin Galactic submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a horizontal stabilizer pin failed to deploy as expected during the Unity 23 flight. The pin is used to secure Unity’s movable tail section to the main aircraft body for reentry into the atmosphere.

Without the additional support from the pin, increased strain is put on the other securing mechanisms during descent. However, redundant systems prevented any safety risk, the company stated.

The horizontal stabilizer is movable during flight to control pitch and adjust the center of gravity as fuel is consumed and payloads shift position. Upon re-entry into the atmosphere, the tail section needs to be firmly secured to handle increased aerodynamic forces.

Initial Investigation

Virgin Galactic said preliminary analysis indicates the cause was a change in tolerance stack-up due to installation procedures. The tolerance issue prevented the pin from engaging fully in the hole.

Virgin Galactic and the FAA will be conducting extensive testing and analysis to determine the root cause. The company emphasized that at no time during the flight were passengers or crew in danger as a result of this issue.

System Status
Primary Structure Nominal
Backup Structure Engaged as expected
Redundant Systems Performed properly

All Virgin Galactic operations will be thoroughly reviewed before any additional test flights are approved. The next flight was not expected for several more weeks regardless, as additional testing needs to be completed on the next spaceship.

What Happens Next

While concerning, this incident by itself is not necessarily a major setback for Virgin Galactic. However, it underscores the complexity of commercial space systems and the need for robust designs and thorough testing procedures. Even minor issues can quickly escalate if not addressed properly early on.

Virgin Galactic emphasized that they have designed redundancy into SpaceShipTwo, allowing backup systems to engage when issues emerge with primary systems. This builds an added safety margin for eventual commercial flights.

However, the FAA will be investigating if there are any systematic causes that could lead to broader issues down the line. Several other test flights were already planned using different SpaceShipTwo vehicles before any passenger flights, providing flexibility in the schedule.

Commercial service is not expected to begin until at least mid-2024 after the test program is completed. Over 600 future astronaut customers have already reserved tickets priced at $450,000 and up.

While a fix for this particular pin issue may be straightforward, any similar incidents in the future would raise more concerns. Virgin Galactic only resumed test flights in 2021 after a previous catastrophic accident in 2014 led to a redesign of the SpaceShipTwo rocket motor system.

Competitors like Blue Origin and SpaceX also occasionally experience technical issues during testing and development. However, commercial human spaceflight remains extremely challenging to make affordable and reliable enough for mainstream access.

If Virgin Galactic can demonstrate the recent pin detachment was an isolated issue, it may not impact development timelines significantly. But technical setbacks are always possible when pushing technology to new limits for the first time.

Virgin Galactic will need to convince customers and investors that they can identify and mitigate problems early, implement effective corrective actions, and press forward. The company aims to fly 400 flights per year at peak capacity.

While a few test flights experiencing minor issues is not abnormal, Virgin Galactic must now focus intently on this investigation. Determining exactly why standard procedures failed will be crucial. Taking thoughtful steps rather than rushing to conclusions will serve them best in the long run.

This process underscores that even billionaires cannot buy instant success overnight in sending private citizens to space regularly. But bit-by-bit, commercial human spaceflight is becoming more tangible for those with the resources and adventurous spirit to embrace new frontiers.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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