Richard Branson just flew to the edge of space. Here’s what it means for space travel.

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Virgin Galactic already has 650 people who have signed up to fly in his vehicle, including musician Justin Bieber and actor Leonard DiCaprio, but while they are currently only available to the rich and famous, there is hope that such flights will one day be more accessible to the general public.

Yesterday’s flight was not just about bragging. Suborbital flights also enable important scientific work to be performed. “Researchers who fly their own science are very, very valuable,” says Laura Forczyk of space consulting firm Astralytical. This first flight was an experiment from the University of Florida to see how plants react to microgravity. Future missions will study how dust behaves on asteroids and practice techniques for performing operations in space.

Crucially, this can be led by researchers themselves, such as Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Texas and head of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, instead of relying on remote systems or astronauts on the International Space Station. Stern, for example, will test an astronomical imaging system previously used in the Space Shuttle which could make useful observations of the solar system.

“There has been a theorized population for 150 years [asteroids] within the orbit of Mercury, ”says Stern. “The best way to look at them is at dusk from space. On the space station, the twilight phenomenon lasts only 30 seconds as you travel at 18,000 miles per hour. But on SpaceShipTwou or New Shepard, the phenomenon lasts for minutes. “

There is a lot of valid criticism of the two billionaires racing into space in the middle of a pandemic – and hardly any of us will ever be able to afford to travel in the years to come. But the childish Branson / Bezos competition should still pave the way for more people to get up worse than ever before, including scientists.

“These aren’t just billionaires and rich people,” Forczyk says. “This could be the dawn of really real commercial space tourism.”

“It shows that the commercial space is ready for prime time,” Williams adds.



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