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Virgin Galactic aircraft returns to flight

VMS Eve in flight
Virgin Galactic's VMS Eve aircraft flew Feb. 15 for the first time since starting an extensive overhaul in late 2021. Credit: Virgin Galactic

WASHINGTON — The carrier aircraft for Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spaceplane made its first flight in more than a year Feb. 15 as the company moves one step closer to beginning commercial service.

The airplane, VMS Eve, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 1:30 p.m. Eastern, flying for more than two and a half hours before landing back at the airport. The plane reached altitudes of up to 12,650 meters during the flight, according to flight tracking data.

The flight was the first for VMS Eve since it flew to Mojave from Spaceport America in New Mexico in October 2021. Virgin Galactic performed an extensive overhaul of the plane while in Mojave, including replacing the center pylon where the SpaceShipTwo spaceplane is attached.

The company did not disclose the results of the flight, but did publish an interview with Kelly Latimer, its senior flight test director. She said the “functional check flight” would test the modifications to the plane, including testing how the new launch pylon worked at altitude after a cold soak.

“It’s a standard practice in the aviation industry and is always a key step after maintenance or modifications are performed on the aircraft,” she said of the test flight. “We check everything on the ground and then again in flight, during different maneuvers at different altitudes and temperatures, especially extremely cold temps.”

Virgin Galactic did not state if additional test flights of the plane are planned in Mojave. The plane was built by Scaled Composites in Mojave for Virgin Galactic and unveiled in 2008. It was known as WhiteKnightTwo for most of its career, although Virgin Galactic now refers to the plane as VMS Eve.

In Virgin Galactic’s most recent earnings call in November, Michael Colglazier, chief executive of the company, said VMS Eve would return to Spaceport America shortly after the test flight, which at the time was scheduled for early January. It will be reunited with the VSS Unity, the company’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane, to begin a series of test flights that will include an unpowered glide flight and a powered suborbital flight with company personnel on board. Those flights will be the first for Unity since a July 2021 suborbital flight that carried company founder Richard Branson and several other Virgin Galactic employees.

That will be followed by a research flight for the Italian Air Force under a contract signed in 2019. The company said in January that it remained on schedule to begin commercial flights in the second quarter, first with the Italian Air Force flight and then space tourist flights.

Shares in Virgin Galactic closed up 13.6% in trading Feb. 15. The company announced Feb. 13 it will release its fourth quarter and full year financial results for 2022 on Feb. 28.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...