Virgin Galactic has reached its highest altitude yet on its latest test flight, as it moves closer towards taking paying customers into space.
Their VSS Unity space plane reached a height of 52 kilometers (32 miles) yesterday, entering a region of the atmosphere called the mesosphere for the first time. It then glided down to land at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California at about 1pm EDT (5pm GMT).
“It was a thrill from start to finish,” Chief Pilot Dave Mackay said in a statement. “Unity’s rocket motor performed magnificently again and [co-pilot Mike “Sooch” Masucci] 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.”
In a video, Sooch described the view outside the window as “a million dollar view” as VSS Unity reached apogee, its highest point, before tilting its twin back rudders to begin re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere.
These rudders act as a feathering system for the spacecraft, allowing it to survive the harsh temperatures and conditions as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. Once low enough, these rudders straighten out again to allow the spacecraft to glide in for a landing.
Unity, which is a SpaceShipTwo vehicle, was carried into the air by a larger mothership plane called VMS Eve, part of the WhiteKnightTwo class of aircraft. It was released at a height of 14 kilometers (9 miles), after which it fired its rocket booster for 42 seconds, reaching a speed of 2.47 times the speed of sound (3,050 kilometers per hour or 1,900 miles per hour).
This was Virgin Galactic’s second test since May, and the third rocket-powered test for VSS Unity. The test was designed to gather more data on supersonic aerodynamics and thermal dynamics, according to the company. The altitude was about halfway to the official line of space, the Karman Line, at 100 kilometers (62 miles).
It’s unclear when Virgin Galactic plans to start launching space tourists at $250,000 a ticket, although CEO George Whitesides told The Verge they were “making good progress.” In May, however, founder Richard Branson said they were “two or three” flights away from reaching space on a test flight.
It has been a long road to recovery for the company, after a tragic accident in 2014 when the feathering system on VSS Unity’s predecessor, VSS Enterprise, was deployed too early. The spacecraft was destroyed and one of the two pilots, Michael Alsbury, was killed.
With this latest flight Virgin Galactic has now gone higher than it ever has before. There’s still more testing to come, but it seems the company is moving closer to starting to launch customers in the near future.