Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo has reached an important milestone today. It flew all the way to the edge of space, reaching the impressive height of 82.7 kilometers (51.4 miles). This was the fourth powered tests for the spaceship with the first being in April 2018. Today's was its highest and fastest yet.
SpaceShipTwo, also known as VSS Unity, left from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The suborbital vessel was piloted by Mark 'Forger' Stucky, the Pilot In Command, and CJ Sturckow, who flew to the International Space Station four times during his astronaut career.
SpaceShipTwo isn't like a “traditional” mission, launching on top of a rocket. First, it gets carried to altitude by a jet cargo aircraft, which lifts it to an altitude of 13 kilometers (8 miles), from where it is dropped. Then SpaceShipTwo's powerful rocket engine kicks in for 1 whole minute taking it higher, beyond the stratosphere, moving at roughly 2,900 kilometers (1,800 miles) per hour when it reaches top speed.
For this historic test, Virgin Galactic kept everyone in the loop with minute-by-minute updates on the progress and milestones achieved. The company aims to use its winged spacecraft to eventually take tourists, as well as scientific equipment, into suborbital space. This test had four experiments sponsored by NASA on board. One, in particular, called COLLIDE is to set to explore how dust moves after a collision in a microgravity environment.
Today’s record will certainly have many space fanatics discussing the potential for this approach to be used for commercial, scientific, and touristic, reasons.
And, of course, the debate will rage whether the space plane truly reached “space” at all. There are different definitions of where space begins and they are quite arbitrary.
The US Airforce defines astronauts as any person that has flown over 80 kilometers (50 miles). A more traditional definition puts the edge of space at 100 kilometers (62 miles) but others argue that it should be higher at 150 kilometers (93 miles), that being the height at which it is possible to complete a full Earth’s orbit without propulsion.
Regardless of your preferred definition, today’s test is important. This could be the beginning of regular suborbital flights.