Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic was forced to suspend all its flights after a routine inspection revealed that a part unintentionally fell off its plane mid-flight.
The space tourism company claims that an alignment pin had “unintentionally detached” from the VMS Eve mothership during the first flight of the year.
This pin helps ensure that the space plane, VMS Unity, remains aligned with VMS Eve while being transported to the edge of space.
Virgin Galactic insists that the safety of the flight, called Galactic 06, was not affected.
However, no further flights will be permitted until the FAA, the US flight regulator, has carried out an “investigation into the mishap”.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has been forced to suspend all flights after a pin that aligns the mothership and spacecraft fell out mid-flight.
Virgin Galactic’s flight takes passengers into space by carrying a small rocket-powered space plane to 45,000 feet perched beneath the belly of a large mothership.
In a statement, Virgin Galactic said the loss was discovered during post-flight checks and the company informed the FAA on Jan. 31.
The company says the alignment pin “helps ensure that the spacecraft is aligned with the mothership when docking vehicles on the ground during pre-flight procedures.”
He adds that the pin also “helps transfer drag and other forces from the spacecraft” as it ascends.
However, the statement insists that the pin did not fall until the spacecraft had already detached from the mothership.
Virgin Galactic said: “At no time did the detached alignment pin represent an impact to the safety of the vehicles or crew on board.
“Virgin Galactic flights are conducted in restricted airspace and at specific geographic launch sites that control hazards to people or structures on the ground.”
Richard Branson, the billionaire owner of Virgin Records and Virgin Galactic, has previously said he wants to make spaceflight available to the general public.
The company says that the pin fell when the space plane had already detached (point 02 of the diagram) and that combat safety was not affected
Richard Branson’s space tourism company offers people the chance to travel briefly on suborbital space flights.
The 140-foot-wide mother plane takes VMS Unity to an altitude of 45,000 feet, at which point pilots disconnect the spacecraft and start the engine.
This takes the craft directly to an altitude of about 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 team of space tourists included a mother and daughter from Antigua who won their tickets in a 2021 competition and a former Olympic athlete who paid $250,000 (£198,110).
However, $250,000 (£198,110) is just the starting price for tickets on board 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 run into trouble with US flight regulations and was grounded by the FAA in 2021 after a test flight deviated 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 authorization.
Virgin Galactic says it is conducting a review with the FAA on this latest number.
However, the FAA says all flights will be grounded until it can “approve Virgin Galactic’s final report, including corrective actions” before the company can fly again.
Until the FAA approves Virgin Galactic’s final report, VMS Unity (pictured) will not be allowed to fly any more flights.
The agency said: “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 corrective actions and meets all other licensing requirements.”
Virgin Galactic’s next flight, Galactic 07, is scheduled between April and June of this year.
The company says it will be able to confirm the flight window and provide an additional update once it has completed its review of this issue.
MailOnline has contacted Virgin Galactic for additional information.