Over a year after a fatal test flight accident, Virgin Galactic is back as CEO Sir Richard Branson today unveiled the new spacecraft that will replace the ill-fated SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Enterprise. Sporting a new silver and white livery and pulled by a Land Rover Autobiography, the new vehicle was wheeled out before an invited audience and named VSS Unity by Professor Stephen Hawking via a recorded message.

Attending the ceremony at Virgin Galactic's spaceport in Mojave California were Virgin Galactic's Founder Future Astronauts, stakeholders, partners, Sir Richard, his mother Eve, his son Sam, and his one-year old granddaughter Eva Deia, who did the actual christening of the suborbital tourist craft using milk in lieu of the more traditional champagne.

In naming the craft, Professor Hawking added that "If I am able to go and if Richard will still take me, I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship," and "We are entering a new space age, and I hope this will help to create a new unity." Video congratulations were also presented from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.

According to Virgin Galactic, the replacement SpaceShipTwo is the first vehicle to be manufactured by Virgin Galactic's wholly-owned manufacturing arm, The Spaceship Company. The Unity will now undergo extensive ground tests before it begins captive carry tests by its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, at an unspecified date. These will be followed by unpowered glide tests, then powered tests at increasing speeds and altitudes before the first attempt at sending the craft into space on a suborbital trajectory.

"Together, we can make space accessible in a way that has only been dreamt of before now, and by doing so can bring positive change to life on Earth," says Sir Richard. "Our beautiful new spaceship, VSS Unity, is the embodiment of that goal also great testament to what can be achieved when true teamwork, great skill and deep pride are combined with a common purpose."

At about 10:07 PDT on October 31, 2014, VSS Enterprise (SS2-001) broke up in midair 13 seconds after being dropped from the WhiteKnightTwo mothership, resulting in the death of the co-pilot Michael Alsbury and severe injury to the pilot, Peter Siebold, who was thrown clear as the craft disintegrated. It was the 55th test flight and fourth powered flight of the suborbital spacecraft built by Scaled Composites, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Northrop Grumman Corporation, for Virgin Galactic.

The spacecraft uses a hybrid rocket system to propel it on a suborbital trajectory into outer space. Key to this design is a feather system for reentry, which uses a pair of tail boom structures that pivot upright, so the spacecraft spirals down into the Earth's atmosphere like a maple seed. Subsequent investigation by the US FAA concluded that the accident was due to an error by Alsbury, who deployed the tail boom 14 seconds too early.

View gallery - 8 images