Virgin Galactic's spaceship set for first spaceflight, UCF experiment along for ride

Launch window opens Thursday

ORLANDO, Fla. – Two weeks ago, Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson told CNN his company's spaceship would reach space for the first time before Christmas. NASA announced Wednesday that flight could happen as soon as this week, and a University of Central Florida experiment is going along for the ride.

Virgin Galactic said the winged spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, will take off no earlier than Thursday with four NASA-supported technology experiments on board.

If all goes well, SpaceShipTwo will separate from the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft and continue its test flight into the edge of space.

"Our pilots will experience an extended period of micro-gravity as VSS Unity coasts to apogee, although – being pilots – they will remain securely strapped in throughout," the company said in a news release.

It will mark the fourth test flight for the spacecraft, which has two pilots, as well as a major comeback for the company after the fatal test flight of a Virgin Galactic spacecraft four years ago.

NASA selected UCF's Collisions Into Dust Experiment, or Collide, to launch along with three other microgravity investigations, including a plant growth experiment from the University of Florida and another from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Collide's principal investigator, UCF physics and planetary science professor Josh Colwell, said he and his team were excited by the opportunity to be on the inaugural flight to space for Virgin Galactic.

"That’s a very exciting position to be in, and I feel some sense of responsibility to have it be successful on their inaugural flight," Colwell said, adding, "And of course we’re very interested in the success of the experiment for our own research purposes."

Colwell has been involved with numerous other experiments and spacecraft that have ventured beyond Earth orbit, including NASA's Saturn explorer, the Cassini spacecraft. That mission ended earlier this year. 

SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity is a different approach to reach space than the upright rockets frequently launching from Florida's Space Coast.

"It’s a very dramatic sort of launch. It’a air launched," Colwell said. "There will be people on board, a pilot and a co-pilot. So it will be the first in many ways, not just for us."

Collide studies the gentle collisions between particles that happen in space, such as the impacts on the surface of asteroids or moons. The results will help scientists understand how the rocks, pebbles and dust will react as astronauts move around on those surfaces.

"NASA is interested in what happens in these kinds of impacts, because as we send robotic explorers to asteroids, and maybe eventually astronauts someday, they are going to need to be interacting with the surface," Colwell said.

Particles from those extraterrestrial surfaces could damage spacecraft and contaminate habitats, understanding the dynamics of the impacts will help NASA design more efficient hardware tools and systems for those missions, according to the space agency.

Collide was built and developed at UCF by Colwell, his university colleagues and undergraduate and graduate students over the years.

"It’s exciting for students to have an opportunity to actually build and test hardware that’s on a rocket going into space," Colwell said. "It's great, hands-on experience for engineers who want to be going into the field of aerospace engineering and spaceflight."

Besides flying low-gravity experiments, Virgin Galactic plans to fly the first round of space tourists. Hundreds of people put down up to $250,000 to be on the first flights with paying customers on board.