Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has been forced to ground all flights after a routine inspection revealed a part unintentionally fell off its plane mid-flight.
The space tourism company says that an alignment pin had ‘unintentionally detached’ from the mothership, VMS Eve, during the first flight of the year.
This pin helps ensure that the space plane, VMS Unity, stays aligned with VMS Eve as it is carried to the edge of space.
Virgin Galactic insists that the safety of the flight, named Galactic 06, was unaffected.
However, no further flights will be permitted until the FAA, the US flight regulator, has carried out a ‘mishap investigation’.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has been forced to suspend all flights after a pin which aligns the mothership and spaceship fell off mid-flight
The Virgin Galactic flight brings passengers into space by transporting a small rocket-powered space plane to 45,000 ft hung beneath the belly of a large mothership plane
In a statement, Virgin Galactic said the loss was discovered during post-flight checks and the company informed the FAA on January 31.
The company says that the alignment pin ‘helps ensure the spaceship is aligned to the mothership when mating the vehicles on the ground during pre-flight procedures.’
It adds that the pin also ‘helps transfer drag and other forces from the spaceship’ as the spaceship climbs.
However, the statement insists that the pin only fell off after the spaceship had already detached from the mothership.
Virgin Galactic said: ‘At no time did the detached alignment pin pose a safety impact to the vehicles or the crew on board.
‘Virgin Galactic flights occur in restricted airspace and at specific geographical launch locations that control the hazards to people or structures on the ground.’
Richard Branson, the billionaire owner of Virgin Records and Virgin Galactic, has previously said that he wants to make spaceflight available to the general public
The company says that the pin only fell off after the space plane had already detached (point 02 on the diagram) and that the safety of the fight was not affected
Richard Branson’s space tourism company offers individuals the chance to travel briefly into sub-orbital space flight.
The 140-ft wide mothership plane carries the VMS Unity to an altitude of 45,000ft, at which point the pilots detach the spacecraft and ignite the engine.
This carries the craft straight up until an altitude of around 50 miles where the crew experiences weightlessness for three minutes before returning to Earth.
The company completed its first test flights in May last year and began commercial flights in June.
The first crew of space tourists included a mother and daughter from Antigua who won their tickets in a 2021 competition and a former Olympian who paid $250,000 (£198,110).
Yet $250,000 (£198,110) is only the starting price for tickets aboard a Virgin Galactic flight and prices can reach up to $450,000 (£356,598).
Virgin Galactic and the FAA are now conducting an investigation into how this issue occurred
The company has previously struggled with US flight regulations and was grounded by the FAA in 2021 after a test flight veered from its flight path.
After leaving approved airspace for one minute and 41 seconds, all flights were suspended until the company made changes related to air traffic control and clearance.
Virgin Galactic says that it is conducting a review in conjunction with the FAA into this latest issue.
However, the FAA says that all flights will be grounded until it can ‘approve Virgin Galactic’s final report, including the corrective actions’ before the company can return to flight.
Until the FAA approves Virgin Galactic’s final report the VMS Unity (pictured) will not be permitted to carry out any more flights
The agency said: ‘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,
‘In addition, Virgin Galactic must request and receive approval from the FAA to modify its license that incorporates the corrective actions and meets all other licensing requirements.’
Virgin Galactic’s next flight, Galactic 07, is scheduled between April and June this year.
The company says it will be able to confirm the flight window and provide an additional update once it has completed the review of this issue.
MailOnline has contacted Virgin Galactic for additional information.