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SYFY WIRE Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic previews next-gen Imagine spaceship with Phantom Menace good looks

By Benjamin Bullard

George Lucas may have kicked off an early design trend back in 1999, when Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace debuted the shimmering silver curves of the J-type 327 Nubian royal starship. The mirror-sleek look of Queen Amidala’s transport vessel was mirrored mightily in the real world, when SpaceX unveiled its stainless steel Starship design, 20 years after the movie released.

Now Virgin Galactic is sharing its own spacey take on that reflective aesthetic, previewing a glimpse at VSS Imagine — its next-generation spaceship. The company introduced Imagine this week as a new addition to its spacefaring fleet, which previously had consisted solely of the VSS Unity. Imagine’s polished hull is clad “entirely with a mirror-like material” that, as Virgin teases, “reflects the surrounding environment, constantly changing color and appearance as it travels from Earth to sky to space.” Along with Unity and the upcoming VSS Inspire, Imagine is aimed straight at the space tourism market, with astronaut crews piloting intrepid travelers into low-Earth orbit.

Space tourists will be getting an out-of-this-world view from their windows, but the view of the craft itself is pretty sweet too. Check out Imagine’s retro-futuristic design lines and those rakish upswept wings:

Elevation view of the Virgin Galactic VSS Imagine
Orthographic view of the Virgin Galactic VSS Imagine

Virgin hasn’t specified which metal material it’s using to give Imagine those good looks, but the company’s release touts the mirrored design as both practical and beautiful: “Along with providing thermal protection, this dynamic material is naturally appealing to the human eye, reflecting our inherent human fascination with space and the transformative experience of spaceflight.”

Supplied by The Spaceship Company, Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson’s manufacturing venture, Imagine is the first vessel in Virgin’s next-gen Spaceship III class of spacecraft. Unlike the Spaceship II class Unity, the new craft can be built faster thanks to its use of a modular design, which manufactures components separately for assembly on-site. Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier told CNBC, though, that Imagine is still “a fairly handcrafted piece” rather than a mass-production craft, and that it currently lacks “production level tooling” in its present form.

As Unity gears up for its next test flight in May and Imagine begins testing this summer, Virgin’s long-term goal is to scale up production for full-scale space tourism. While there’s no forecast for how long that’ll take, the company plans to eventually build out a roster of spaceports that can each field up to 400 flights per year.