Virgin Galactic has been saying it will make it to space this year for a while, and on Thursday it came the closest it’s ever come. During the third powered flight of the VSS Unit vehicle, the spacecraft reached an altitude of 52 km (32.3 miles), a little more than halfway towards the Kármán line, which is generally considered the beginning of space. This is the first time Virgin Galactic has flown into the mesosphere.
The company also released some other details about the flight, noting that the spacecraft was released 9 miles (14.2 km) from the carrier, the engine burned for 42 seconds and the vehicle reached a maximum speed of Mach 2.7. Pilots Dave Mackay and Mike “Sooch” Masucci flew the Unit vehicle on Wednesday morning from the Mojave Air & Space Port.
“It was a thrill from start to finish,” Mackay said in a company press release after the flight. “UnitThe rocket engine again performed fantastically and Sooch made 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 view of Earth from the black sky was magnificent.”
The company did not immediately release details about the next flight for the Unit spacecraft, but only says it will now analyze the post-flight data and make plans for future test flights. Company officials remain convinced that a “spaceflight” of Unit will take place this year.
According to Virgin, the 18 meter long Unit vehicle will eventually have a flight profile in which the spacecraft is released by the White KnightTwo carrier aircraft at 14 to 15 km, and it reaches a maximum speed of Mach 3.5 or higher. The company did not say how high the VSS Unit will fly, but Virgin has advertised “few minutes” off the seat in microgravity to its long list of customers. Up to six customers can fly at the same time.
Since test flights of the Unit spacecraft started in December 2016, the space tourism market has changed significantly. A competitor, XCOR, has stopped developing its suborbital Lynx spacecraft at all. However, Blue Origin has made significant progress by flying its New Shepard rocket and spacecraft into suborbital space nine times, and by the end of this year it could fly humans above the Kármán line.
List image by Virgin Galactic