Virgin Galactic's Comeback to Supersonic Flight

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Finally, Virgin Galactic intends to carry tourists on suborbital jumps into the decreased reaches of space, where they could view Earth far below and also the stars beyond.

"After two years of extensive ground and atmospheric testing, the passing of this milestone marks the start of the final portion of Unity's flight test program", Virgin said in a celebratory post. For now, the company's engineers will be reviewing the valuable flight, motor, and performance data gleaned from the test flight.

Virgin Galactic's original SpaceShipTwo vehicle broke apart during an October 2014 test flight that killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot, in an accident that was ultimately attributed to pilot error.

"#WhiteKnightTwo pilots, Mike "Sooch" Masucci and Nicola Pecile have landed VMS Eve safely, completely today's important test flight @MojaveAirport", the tweet said.

This particular version of the spacecraft, dubbed SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, has performed seven glide tests since it was built in 2016.

Image  Virgin Galactic
Image  Virgin Galactic

After takeoff from the Mojave Air and Space Port, the new rocketplane, known as VSS Unity and built by The Spaceship Co., was dropped from its mothership, the White Knight 2 carrier aircraft, at an altitude of 46,500 feet. Although the VSS Unity has previously done many glide tests, this was the first time its rocket motor was turned on.

The rocket went into a steep climb as the engine burned for 30 seconds and went supersonic, reaching Mach 1.87. The company can now proceed with new phases, including full-duration rocket burns and powered flight. Virgin Galactic noted that Unity has safety mechanisms resulting from the accident. "While we celebrate that achievement, the team remains focused on the challenging tasks which still lie ahead".

SpaceShipTwo is based on famed aerospace designer Burt Rutan's smaller single-seat SpaceShipOne, which became the first privately funded spacecraft to fly above 100 kilometers, the accepted definition of where "space" begins, in 2004.

Other than the technical specifics of the flight, Virgin Galactic didn't say much yesterday.

It was the 69 flight for SpaceShipTwo, all but four of which have been gliding flights. "Space feels tantalisingly close now".

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