x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Virgin Galactic's space tourism partnership with Abu Dhabi blasts off

Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company co-owned by Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments, has completed the first rocket-powered test flight of its spacecraft.

SpaceShipTwo on its debut test flight. Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments owns 37.8 per cent of space tourism company Virgin Galactic. Photo courtesy Virgin Galactic.
SpaceShipTwo on its debut test flight. Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments owns 37.8 per cent of space tourism company Virgin Galactic. Photo courtesy Virgin Galactic.

DUBAI // Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company co-owned by Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments, has made the first rocket-powered test flight of its spacecraft.

SpaceShipTwo took off on Monday from Mojave, California, lifted by WhiteKnightTwo before being released at a height of 14,000 metres.

Its two-man crew then ignited the craft's rocket jet, propelling it to a height of 16,700 metres and breaking the sound barrier as it reached a top speed of Mach 1.2.

The engine burn lasted 16 seconds, in line with the flight plan.

Pilot Mark Stucky and co-pilot Mike Alsbury landed the craft at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

The test is considered a major milestone in Virgin Galactic's plans for commercial space flights.

Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group co-owns Virgin Galactic, watched the flight from the ground.

"For the first time we were able to prove the key components of the system, fully integrated and in flight," Mr Branson said.

"This supersonic success opens the way for a rapid expansion of the spaceship's powered-flight envelope, with a very realistic goal of a full space flight by the year's end. We saw history in the making today."

Aabar paid US$280 million (Dh1.02 billion) for 31.8 per cent of Virgin Galactic's holding company in 2009, and later raised its stake to 37.8 per cent.

"We partnered with Virgin Galactic several years ago with the aspiration to transform and commercialise access to space for the broader public," said Khadem Al Qubaisi, chairman of Aabar.

"This test is another key milestone in realising that aspiration.

"Our partnership goes from strength to strength and is an excellent example of Aabar's desire to participate in the development of world-class technologies that are commercially viable and strategically important for the company, its shareholders, and for Abu Dhabi."

The first commercial flights are due to be launched from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

A ticket for a two-hour flight will cost $200,000, and celebrities Katy Perry, Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt are among those who have signed up.

Virgin Galactic is holding talks with authorities in Abu Dhabi about building a second spaceport in the emirate.

csimpson@thenational.ae