Richard Branson has just flown to the edge of space. Here’s what that means for space travel.

Virgin Galactic already has 650 people registered to fly on its vehicle, including musician Justin Bieber and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, but although they are only accessible to the rich and famous at the moment, it is hoped that such flights will be one day more affordable for the general public. .

Yesterday’s robbery wasn’t just about bragging rights. Suborbital flights also allow important scientific work to be carried out. “Researchers who fly with their own science are very, very valuable,” says Laura Forczyk of space consulting firm Astralytical. On this first flight, there was an experiment from the University of Florida to see how plants react to microgravity. Future missions will study the behavior of dust on asteroids and practice surgical techniques in space.

Importantly, this can be led by researchers themselves, like Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Texas and the head of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, rather than relying on remote systems or astronauts on the ground. the International Space Station. Stern, for example, will test an astronomical imaging system previously used on the space shuttle who could make useful observations of the solar system.

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

There are, of course, many valid criticisms of two billionaires running through space in the midst of a pandemic – and it’s unlikely that many of us will ever be able to afford the trip in the years to come. But the Branson / Bezos children’s competition is still set to pave the way for more people than ever before, including scientists.

“It’s not just about billionaires and the rich,” Forczyk says. “This could be the dawn of true commercial space tourism.”

“This shows that the retail space is ready for prime time,” adds Williams.

Correction: We have changed the location of Spaceport America. It’s in New Mexico, not California.

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