Virgin Galactic is grounded after the company said a small part unintentionally detached from the mothership of its rocket-powered space plane on its latest space tourism flight.
The loss of the part, called an alignment pin, did not impact the safety of the mission, according to the company. The flight, called Galactic 06, launched on Jan. 26 and marked Virgin Galactic’s first space tourism mission of the year after entering commercial service in 2023.
The company discovered the part loss during routine checks and notified government regulators on Jan. 31, “in accordance with regulations,” Virgin Galactic said in a statement.
The pin was located on the underbelly of Virgin Galactic’s mothership, called VMS Eve, which is a twin-fuselage plane designed to carry the space plane, VMS Unity, under its wings to a high altitude before VMS Unity is released and vaults toward the edge of space.
The alignment pin “helps ensure the spaceship is aligned to the mothership when mating the vehicles on the ground during pre-flight procedures,” the company said in a Monday statement.
The pin also helps transfer “drag and other forces” from the space plane to the support structure that cradles the rocket-powered plane as it rides attached to the VMS Eve mothership, according to the company.
Virgin Galactic said it will work alongside the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which licenses commercial rocket launches, on a review of the issue.
The FAA said in a statement that it will carry out a “mishap investigation” and that the agency “must approve Virgin Galactic’s final report, including the corrective actions” before the company can return to flight.
“A return to flight is based on the FAA determining that any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety,” according to a statement from the agency. “In addition, Virgin Galactic must request and receive approval from the FAA to modify its licence that incorporates the corrective actions and meets all other licensing requirements.”
Virgin Galactic could not be immediately reached for additional comment Monday evening.
Broader attachment structures remained in place during the flight, Virgin Galactic added in the statement, noting that the alignment pin does “not support the spaceship’s weight, nor do they have an active function once the spaceship is released.”
The VMS Unity usually flies affixed to the VMS Eve mothership until it is soaring more than 45,000 feet (13,700 meters) above Earth’s surface. Once at altitude, the VMS Unity detaches from the mothership and ignites its rocket engine, swooping upward toward the edge of the atmosphere.
Overall, the Galactic 06 mission “was a safe and successful flight that was conducted in accordance with Virgin Galactic’s rigorous flight procedures and protocols,” the company said.
“Virgin Galactic flights occur in restricted airspace and at specific geographical launch locations that control the hazards to people or structures on the ground,” Virgin Galactic’s statement reads. “The Company also observed no damage to the spaceship or the mothership.”
The FAA is tasked with giving the final go-ahead for commercial companies hoping to launch rockets and spacecraft. The agency’s role in this process, however, is only to analyze the potential risk that a flight poses to the public, people or property — not the danger to passengers on board commercial space vehicles, according to a moratorium set to expire in March 2024.
The FAA routinely carries out mishap investigations with private companies after a flight failure or other issue during a commercial rocket launch.
Virgin Galactic said it will “provide a further update at the completion of the (joint FAA) review and will confirm the flight window for the ‘Galactic 07’ mission, which is planned for the second quarter of 2024.”