Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic unveils new Spaceship III

·2-min read

Virgin Galactic has unveiled its latest spaceplane model, the SpaceShip III, the first of which will be named VSS Imagine.

Ground testing is starting immediately and glide flights are planned for this summer to launch from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Unveiling the design, Virgin Galactic celebrated the plane being "finished entirely with a mirror-like material [that] reflects the surrounding environment, constantly changing colour and appearance as it travels from earth to sky to space".

The dynamic material isn't simply appealing to the human eye, "reflecting our inherent human fascination with space and the transformative experience of spaceflight", the company says, but also provides thermal protection.

The next SpaceShip III vehicle to be added to the Virgin Galactic fleet will be called the VSS Inspire as the company pushes towards flying 400 flights per year, per spaceport.

It comes ahead of the next test flight of the Mark II spaceplane, VSS Unity, which is scheduled for this May.

Back in December, Virgin Galactic aborted a landmark test flight of the rocket-powered space plane, despite everything getting the all-clear a minute before launch.

Although the air-launched spaceplane was successfully carried to an altitude of about 9.4 miles (15km), it did not decouple from its mother ship as planned due to a technical issue which has since been resolved.

The mission cancellation followed tragedy striking during the company's first test launch in 2014, when the SpaceShip II vehicle broke apart during its flight and crashed, killing one pilot while the other was seriously injured after parachuting.

Virgin Galactic's spacecraft work by decoupling from their mother ships before their rocket fires them into sub-orbital space 50 miles (80km) above the Earth, exposing the crew and cargo to more than two minutes of microgravity.

There are arguments as to whether the 50 mile altitude qualifies as outer space, with the US government stating this is the boundary of space, although some standards identify the boundary at 62 miles (100km).

Virgin Galactic ultimately aims to be operating space tourism flights from next year, and already has more than 600 customers for the $250,000 (£189,000) seats - including Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Michael Colglazier, Virgin Galactic's chief executive, said: "Today we unveiled our SpaceShip III class of vehicles, marking the beginning of the Virgin Galactic fleet.

"VSS Imagine and Inspire are stunning ships that will take our future astronauts on an incredible voyage to space, and their names reflect the aspirational nature of human spaceflight."

Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin, said: "Virgin Galactic spaceships are built specifically to deliver a new, transforming perspective to the thousands of people who will soon be able to experience the wonder of space for themselves.

"Our hope is for all those who travel to space to return with fresh perspectives and new ideas that will bring positive change to our planet."