Virgin spaceplane makes maiden rocket-powered flight

And pops the sound barrier for good measure

Video Virgin Galactic’s space tourism operation conducted its first rocket-powered flight on Thursday, and appears to have recorded a roaring success.

A craft named VSS Unity was hoisted to an altitude of 46,500 feet by designated schlep-plane WhiteKnightTwo, then released.

“After a few seconds, Unity’s rocket motor was brought to life and the pilots aimed the spaceship upwards into an 80 degree climb, accelerating to Mach 1.87 during the 30 seconds of rocket burn,” says Virgin Galactic’s account of the flight.

The vehicle then coasted to an altitude of 84,271 feet, before making a runway landing.

Youtube Video

That flight reached just over a quarter of the altitude Virgin Galactic promised paying passengers. At over 320,000 feet – 100km or 62 miles – a flight is considered to have reached outer space even if it does not make a complete orbit. Virgin Galactic’s promised passengers or scientists “Exposure to several minutes of high quality microgravity per flight” on each launch.

The launch is welcome news as it’s the first powered flight since the 2014 accident that killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury.

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More tests await the craft before it launches in earnest. Virgin Galactic’s previously said it expects to fly paid missions in 2018, but it’s unclear if that remains a feasible deadline. ®

PS: Several years ago your correspondent met Ubuntu daddy Mark Shuttleworth, who famously rode a Soyuz, and asked if he’d consider a second space tourism expedition on a Virgin vehicle. He said “no”, because he believed a brief sub-orbital sojourn could not compare with his own ten-day trip to the International Space Station.

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