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Virgin Galactic to head to space today: All you need to know

Unity 22 will carry a full crew of two pilots and four 'mission specialists'

virgin unity The Unity space plane separating from its carrier aircraft | Virgin Galactic

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is all set to launch its first fully crewed space flight test on Sunday morning (US time).

The official website of Virgin Galactic has launched a timer on its home page counting the hours until the beginning of the launch sequence of the 'Unity 22' mission, consisting of six crew.

The mission has been keenly watched for a host of reasons as it marks a milestone in the field of space tourism. In addition, the mission, if successful, would give Branson the bragging rights in the battle of the billionaires who are set to go into space; Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is expected to take off in the Blue Origin flight next week.

Where and when

The Unity 22 mission is currently scheduled to take off from the Spaceport America complex in New Mexico. While the exact launch time is unclear, Virgin Galactic will begin live-streaming of the event at 9am Eastern Time (6.30pm IST) on Sunday on its website and official YouTube and social media channels. The broadcast itself is expected to be a star-studded affair with comedian Stephen Colbert hosting the live-stream. Pop star Khalid is expected to perform a new song after Unity 22 returns to earth. Interestingly, Elon Musk, another billionaire intending to conquer space, has hinted he could be present at the launch of Unity 22. Musk tweeted on Saturday, "Will see you there to wish you the best".

Who will be going?

Unity 22 will carry a full crew of two pilots and four 'mission specialists'. David Mackay and Michael Masucci will be the pilots.

In addition to Branson, the mission will have three Virgin Galactic employees, who are tasked with evaluating how the space experience will be for 'paying' customers. "They are Beth Moses, the chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations. Ms. Bandla will also conduct a science experiment provided by the University of Florida," The New York Times reported.

The presence of Bandla, who is of Indian origin, has evoked considerable interest in India. Bandla is an aeronautical engineer, who was born in Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh and brought up in Houston, Texas. Bandla, a Purdue University alumna, will be evaluating the human-tended research experience, using an experiment from the University of Florida that requires several handheld fixation tubes that will be activated at various points in the flight profile, a statement on the Virgin Galactic website said.

Bandla started in her role as the vice-president of Government Affairs and Research Operations at Virgin Galactic in January 2021.

Bandla will be the third Indian-origin woman to go to space after Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams.

How will they be going?

Unity 22, unlike the ubiquitous Space Shuttle and conventional rockets, is a 'space plane'. It is the size of an executive passenger jet. It will be carried by a larger aircraft, which is part of Virgin Galactic's projects.

"To get off the ground, Unity is carried by a larger plane to an altitude of about 50,000 feet. There, Unity will be released, and the rocket plane’s motor will ignite. The acceleration will make people on board feel a force up to 3.5 times their normal weight on the way to an altitude of more than 50 miles. At the top of the arc, those on board will be able to get out of their seats and experience about four minutes of apparent weightlessness," The New York Times explained. Unity 22 will fly to an altitude of around 90km, affording the crew a glimpse of the curvature of the earth.

After its 'near-space' experience, Unity 22 will begin re-entry into the atmosphere. The two tail booms on the space craft will rotate upward to create more drag to slow it down. Once back in the atmosphere, the tail booms rotate downward and the craft glides back to its launch port.

Why it matters

The flight of Unity 22 is expected to take around 90 minutes and the whole space experience is expected to last just four-five minutes. In fact, the crew will not escape gravity, but only experience a brief period of weightlessness.

But the mission of Unity 22 will be a major step in the genesis of full-fledged space tourism. Two more such test flights are expected before Virgin Galactic plans to commence 'commercial operations' next year. According to reports in May, around 600 people, including movie stars and business people, have signed up to fly on Virgin Galactic's commercial operations, by paying around $250,000 a piece.

Amazon and Musk's Space X are also eyeing the start of commercial space tourism. Even Russia, the original pioneer of taking civilians to space, plans to resume commercial launches.