SpaceShipTwo rocket plane pushes the envelope in third supersonic test flight

Space

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity, fires up its hybrid rocket motor during a supersonic test flight. (MarsScientific.com and Trumbull Studios via Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic sent its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity, to its highest-ever altitude today during its third powered test flight — setting the stage for a full-powered push across the boundary of outer space.

Unity was hooked beneath its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane this morning for takeoff from Mojave Air and Space Port in California. About an hour into the flight, the rocket plane was dropped into the air and fired its single hybrid rocket motor, punching upward into the sky.

Virgin Galactic reported that the craft executed a 42-second rocket burn and hit a top speed of Mach 2.47. Maximum altitude was 170,800 feet (32 miles, or 52 kilometers). That’s higher than high-altitude balloons can fly, and more than halfway to outer space.

VSS Unity’s two previous rocket-powered flights involved shorter rocket burns and rose no higher than 114,500 feet.

On the way down, Unity deployed its “feathered-wing” re-entry system to slow its supersonic descent. Peak re-entry speed was Mach 1.7.

Virgin Galactic said pilots Dave Mackay and Mike “Sooch” Masucci guided Unity through its glide back to the Mojave airport.

“It was a thrill from start to finish,” Mackay said in a post-landing statement. “Unity’s rocket motor performed magnificently again, and Sooch pulled off a smooth landing. This was a new altitude record for both of us in the cockpit, not to mention our mannequin in the back, and the views of Earth from the black sky were magnificent.”

Masucci said the flight was “exciting and frankly beautiful.”

“Having been a U-2 pilot and done a lot of high altitude work, or what I thought was high altitude work, the view from 170,000 feet was just totally amazing,” he said.

Todd Ericson and Kelly Latimer piloted WhiteKnightTwo. Here are some of the photos tweeted from the scene:

Today is the 14th flight for VSS Unity #SpaceShipTwo, 252nd for VMS Eve #WhiteKnightTwo pic.twitter.com/dKC3vtEb5b

— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) July 26, 2018

Today is the 14th flight for VSS Unity #SpaceShipTwo, 252nd for VMS Eve #WhiteKnightTwo pic.twitter.com/7kNWECtqLs

— TheSpaceshipCompany (@TheSpaceshipCo) July 26, 2018

Today VSS Unity completed her third powered test flight. #OnwardsAndUpwards #SpaceShipTwo getting #NMReady pic.twitter.com/0Nd1GYBGrM

— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) July 26, 2018

Great to be able to share these moments with our team's families #VirginFamily pic.twitter.com/wi1poMO30n

— TheSpaceshipCompany (@TheSpaceshipCo) July 26, 2018

Great to be able to share these moments with our team's families #VirginFamily pic.twitter.com/KXMFpJoqLK

— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) July 26, 2018

Today’s flight was aimed at checking VSS Unity’s aerodynamics and thermal dynamics with the dial turned up on the rocket motor. “We were able to complete a large number of test points, which will give us good insight as we progress to our goal of commercial service,” Masucci said.

Virgin Galactic’s step-by-step flight test program is closing in on Unity’s first flight beyond the 100-kilometer altitude that serves as the internationally accepted boundary of outer space. (That boundary, known as the Karman Line, may someday be redrawn at a lower altitude.)

The path hasn’t always been smooth: In 2014, the first SpaceShipTwo plane, dubbed VSS Enterprise, broke up during a rocket-powered flight, killing the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot.

Over the past four years, Virgin Galactic has incorporated safety-related upgrades in the design of VSS Unity and changed its procedures for flight training and testing. Now the company’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, is once again signaling that spaceflights could be coming soon.

“We spent 14 years working on our space program,” Branson told Bloomberg’s David Rubenstein in May. “It’s been tough. Space is tough. It is rocket science. … Before the end of the year, I hope to be sitting in a Virgin Galactic spaceship, going to space.”

He said about 800 people have paid as much as $250,000 to reserve a seat on the plane, which will fly out of Spaceport America in New Mexico once commercial operations begin.

Branson isn’t the only billionaire building a suborbital spaceship: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is developing a vertical-launch craft called New Shepard. That rocket ship is currently going through uncrewed, autonomously controlled tests, and Bezos is aiming to begin flying test astronauts this year.

If all goes well, Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin is expected to announce a ticket price and start taking passenger reservations next year.

Previously:

Update for 11:46 a.m. PT July 26: We’ve added post-flight data and quotes.

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