During its most recent flight, Virgin Galactic’s carrier aircraft dropped an alignment pin which helps in the mating process between the mothership and the spaceplane. The company is investigating the issue, which could potentially delay its upcoming mission.
Virgin Galactic discovered that the pin had detached from the launch pylon of the mothership, VMS Eve, during a post-flight review of the Galactic 06 mission and in turn notified the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the company announced this week.
“Galactic 06 was a safe and successful flight that was conducted in accordance with Virgin Galactic’s rigorous flight procedures and protocols,” the company wrote. “At no time did the detached alignment pin pose a safety impact to the vehicles or the crew on board.” Gizmodo reached out to Virgin Galactic for further comment but did not receive a response by time of publishing.
As part of its space tourism flights, Virgin Galactic launched its latest mission on January 26 from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The company’s VSS Unity was carrying four private astronauts, marking the first time a Virgin Galactic astronaut was not on board the spaceplane for support. Richard Branson’s space venture launched its commercial trips in 2023, with the first crew taking off on June 29. Since then, the company has been hard at work sending more private passengers to suborbital heights on board the VSS Unity spaceplane.
In order to launch its passengers to suborbital space, Virgin Galactic’s VMS Eve carrier aircraft takes off while carrying the VSS Unity spaceplane beneath its wings. The aircraft then releases the spaceplane at an altitude of around 44,500 feet (13,500 meters) above the ground. Once it’s released, the spaceplane fires up its rocket engines, lifting off to a maximum altitude of 54.2 miles (87 kilometers).
The fallen pin from the most recent flight is used to align the spaceship with the mothership when the two vehicles are mated on the ground during the pre-flight review. Once it takes off, the pin helps transfer drag from the spaceship into the pylon and center wing section of the aircraft, but it plays no further role once Unity separates from Eve. The alignment pin performed as designed during the mated portion of the flight, and only detached after the spaceship was released from the mothership, Virgin Galactic noted. The company added that there was no other damage to either of its vehicles.
Virgin Galactic’s upcoming mission, Galactic o7, is scheduled for the second quarter of 2024. The company, however, will confirm the date for the mission once it completes the review of the alignment pin.
The company has suffered from previous safety issues that delayed the launch of its commercial flights. In July 2021, six passengers, including Branson himself, hopped on the suborbital ride for a trip that was meant to usher in the company’s commercial missions. Instead, the flight led to an investigation by the FAA as reports suggested that the spaceplane veered off course during its ascent.
The latest anomaly comes during a critical time for Virgin Galactic, which is getting ready to usher in the new Delta class spaceplane in 2025. Unity is expected to fly two or three more times before being intentionally grounded in mid-2024, with the company hoping to launch its more profitable vehicle that’s designed to be able to fly once a month. It’s still unclear how the latest anomaly will affect Virgin Galactic’s plans moving forward.