Virgin Galactic has been saying for some time that it will reach outer space this year, and on Thursday it came the closest it has ever gotten. During the third powered flight of the VSS Unityvehicle, the spacecraft reached an altitude of 52km (32.3 miles), just over halfway toward the Kármán line, which generally is regarded as the beginning of space. This is the first time that Virgin Galactic has flown into the mesosphere.
The company also released a few other details about the flight, noting that the spacecraft was released from its carrier aircraft at 14.2km, that its engine burned for 42 seconds, and that the vehicle reached a maximum speed of Mach 2.7. Pilots Dave Mackay and Mike “Sooch” Masucci flew the Unity vehicle on Wednesday morning from the Mojave Air & Space Port.
“It was a thrill from start to finish,” Mackay said after the flight in a company news release. “Unity’s rocket motor performed magnificently again, and Sooch 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.”
The company did not immediately release details about its next flight for the Unity spacecraft, only saying that it will now analyze the post-flight data and plan for future test flights. Company officials remain confident that a “spaceflight” of Unity will occur this year.
According to Virgin, the 18-meter-long Unity vehicle will ultimately have a flight profile in which the spacecraft is released by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft at 14 to 15km, and it reaches a maximum velocity of Mach 3.5 or greater. The company has not said how high the VSS Unity will fly, but Virgin has advertised “several minutes” of out-of-seat time in microgravity to its lengthy list of customers. Up to six customers will be able to fly at a time.
Since test flights of the Unity spacecraft began in December 2016, the market for space tourism has changed significantly. One competitor, XCOR, has stopped development of its suborbital Lynxspacecraft altogether. However Blue Origin has made significant strides, flying its New Shepard rocket and spacecraft into suborbital space nine times, and it could begin flying people above the Kármán line by the end of this year.