FAA grounds Virgin Galactic space flights during anomaly investigation (updated)

·Weekend Editor
·2-min read
The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo space plane Unity returns to earth after the mothership separated at Spaceport America, near Truth and Consequences, New Mexico on July 11, 2021. - Billionaire Richard Branson took off July 11, 2021 from a base in New Mexico aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel bound for the edge of space, a voyage he hopes will lift the nascent space tourism industry off the ground.A massive carrier plane made a horizontal take-off from Spaceport, New Mexico at around 8:40 am Mountain Time (1440 GMT) and will ascend for around an hour to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15 kilometers).The mothership will then drop a rocket-powered spaceplane called VSS Unity, which will ignite its engine and ascend at Mach 3 beyond 50 miles (80 kilometers) of altitude, which marks the boundary of space according to the United States. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Virgin Galactic is having a particularly bad day. Reuters reports the Federal Aviation Administration has barred Virgin from flying SpaceShipTwo while the agency investigates an anomaly in the descent of Richard Branson's spaceflight. The regulator wants to be sure the "mishap" leading to the aircraft's deviation from its cleared route won't hurt public safety. Officials didn't estimate when Virgin might resume flights.

We've asked Virgin for comment. The space tourism firm previously acknowledged that the flight went off-course, dipping below the intended airspace for one minute and 41 seconds. However, it also maintained that it didn't fly outside the "lateral confines" of the allowed airspace.

This comes at an unfortunate time for Virgin. The company just announced its first flight carrying commercial research, with a launch due in late September or early October — that schedule might be in doubt if the FAA probe lasts long enough or prompts significant changes to the plan. It could also add another delay to Virgin's first space tourist flights, now slated for early 2022. That's concerning for a company that's bleeding cash and might not turn a profit until it's carrying passengers.

Update 9/2 5:22PM ET: A Virgin spokesperson told Engadget the company was cooperating with the FAA, and stressed that it was taking the deviation "seriously." You can read the full statement below.

As we have previously stated, we are working in partnership with the FAA to address the short time that the spaceship dropped below its permitted altitude during the Unity 22 flight. We take this seriously and are currently addressing the causes of the issue and determining how to prevent this from occurring on future missions. Although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico. At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory, and at no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public. FAA representatives were present in our control room during the flight and in post-flight debriefs.

We have been working closely with the FAA to support a thorough review and timely resolution of this issue.

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