The motor that powered Virgin Galactic's VSS unity into space has been donated to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. In a formal ceremony on Thursday, the hybrid rocket motor built by The Spaceship Company (TSC) for the spaceplane was transferred to the museum by Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson, where it will be exhibited as part of its new "Future of Spaceflight" commercial space flight gallery.

On December 13, 2018, the Virgin Galactic spaceplane VSS Unity, also known as SpaceShipTwo, made history as the first private commercial passenger spacecraft to travel into space when, under control of two test pilots, it thundered to an altitude of 51.4 miles (82.7 km) at a speed of Mach 3 (1,934 knots, 2,225 mph, 3,581 km/h) before returning safely to Earth.

This was accomplished using a 3,000 lb (1,361 kg) hybrid rocket motor that combines the simple design of a solid rocket motor with the power and control of a liquid rocket engine. Instead of using purely liquid or solid fuel, the TSC engine uses a plug of polyamide plastic fuel and liquid nitrous oxide as an oxidizer. This allows it to generate 72,000 lb (320 kN) of thrust for 60 seconds, yet it can be throttled at will by controlling the flow of the oxidizer. According to the Guinness World Records, it holds the world's record for the most powerful hybrid rocket to be used in manned flight.

Virgin Galactic says that VSS Unity and other craft in the SpaceShipTwo fleet will use similar motors to carry passengers and commercial payloads into space on suborbital trajectories. For passengers, a hybrid motor is especially attractive because it can be shut down at any time if an emergency occurs.

"We're proud to be making history as we work towards launching the world's first commercial space line, and today we could not be more delighted to donate a piece of that history to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum for its wonderful new exhibition," says Branson. "The desire to explore space has been an inspiration since time began and, in recent decades, an incredible catalyst for innovation. I hope our donation will also play a small part in inspiring the thousands of visitors as they pass through the new gallery in years to come."

View gallery - 2 images