Feb 22, 2019

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic conducts historic 2nd test flight

Three crew members aboard the VSS Unity on Feb. 22, 2018. Photo: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company founded by billionaire Richard Branson, conducted a second successful test flight of its VSS Unity spacecraft in the skies above Mojave, California on Friday morning and this one made history.

Why it matters: The flight brings the company one step closer to realizing its vision of carrying tourists to space for tickets that reportedly cost up to $250,000 a piece. The test flight on Friday included a third passenger, Beth Moses, who is the company's chief astronaut instructor and a micro-gravity researcher. She became the first passenger to reach space aboard a commercial space craft.

The company said in a tweet that Moses "will provide human validation for the data we collect, including aspects of the customer cabin and spaceflight environment from the perspective of people in the back."

The details: The VSS Unity took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port at about 8 a.m. PT, carried by a larger plane, known as WhiteKnight Two. The aircraft flew to about 40,000 feet, where Unity was released from the mother ship, lit its rocket engine and eventually reached Mach 3 and an altitude of 55.85 miles.

That altitude is important, as it lies below the Karman Line, which is the widely accepted boundary to space that is 62 miles above the Earth's surface. However, the Federal Aviation Administration considers the beginning at 50 miles, and will hand out astronaut wings to persons who fly to that altitude.

Virgin Galactic's rival in the space tourism market, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, has run test flights above the Karman Line.

What they're saying: In remarks at a conference this week in New York, Bezos criticized Virgin Galactic's tests for not exceeding the Karman Line.

"We've always had as our mission that we wanted to fly above the Karman Line, because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you're an astronaut or not," he said, according to Space News. "That's something they’re going to have to address, in my opinion."

Go deeper: Special report: The new global race to space

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that this flight included the first passenger carried to space aboard a commercial spacecraft.

Go deeper

Coronavirus updates: Market ends worst week since financial crisis

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens.

The stock market ended its worst week since the financial crisis, prompting the Fed to release a statement. Meanwhile, the WHO warned that countries are losing their chance to contain the novel coronavirus and raised its global risk assessment to "very high" Friday.

The big picture: COVID-19 has killed more than 2,860 people and infected more than 84,000 others in over 60 countries and territories outside the epicenter in mainland China. The number of new cases reported outside China now exceed those inside the country.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 7 hours ago - Health

California coronavirus: Latest case has no recent history of international travel

Gov. Gavin Newsom. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

A new case of the novel coronavirus in California was announced on Friday after Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday that 33 people had tested positive for the virus, noting the risk to the public remains low.

What's new: An adult woman with chronic health conditions in Santa Clara County who "did not recently travel overseas" or come into contact with anyone known to be ill was confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus on Friday by CDC and California Department of Public Health officials.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 7 hours ago - Health

Big video game conference delayed amid coronavirus concerns

Photo: GDC

Next month's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco became the latest tech event to be cancelled or postponed amid growing concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The big picture: A growing number of events are being scrapped, including Mobile World Congress and Facebook's F8 developer conference. Some, like the giant SXSW event in Austin, insist they are moving forward.