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Sun 10 Jul 2016 10:03 AM

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Abu Dhabi-backed Virgin Galactic set to restart passenger spacecraft flight tests

Nearly 700 people have signed up for the planned commercial flights which cost $250,000 each

Abu Dhabi-backed Virgin Galactic set to restart passenger spacecraft flight tests
Virgin Spaceship Unity

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture, backed by Abu Dhabi, is set to resume test flights next month with its new passenger spacecraft which replaced the craft that crashed in a fatal accident during a test flight two years ago over California's Mojave Desert.

Virgin Galactic, a privately-funded space company owned by Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments PJS, is developing a vehicle that can take thrill-seekers, researchers and commercial customers on short hops into space.

Ground testing is expected to  complete its ground tests next month, after which it will move to tests in the skies while attached to an aircraft, according to Bloomberg.

Flights were grounded in October 2014  after the SpaceShipTwo broke in up in mid-air in an accident that was blamed on pilot error and oversights by Northrop Gumman Corp's Scaled Composites division, which designed, built and tested the aircraft.

In February this year, the company unveiled its new craft, dubbed Virgin Space Ship Unity, which was already being developed when accident occurred.

The biggest difference between the two is the addition of a pin to prevent a pilot from unlocking the ship’s rotating tail section too soon before descent, which is what triggered the breakup of the first spaceship.

The two-pilot, six-passenger spaceship is designed to reach altitudes of 62 miles (100 km) above the planet, providing a few minutes of weightlessness and a view of Earth set against the blackness of space. Nearly 700 people have signed up for rides, which cost $250,000 (£173,527) each.

No date has been fixed for the first commercial flight, which will depend on the results of the tests, according to Jonathan Firth, vice president at Virgin Galactic.

“We’ve thrown out so many dates in the past that we weren’t able to keep to, we’re being a bit more conservative this time,” he told Bloomberg.

Virgin Galactic is among a handful of companies, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems and Boeing, planning to fly people in space.

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