Virgin Galactic is today much closer to its goal to take passengers on quick jaunts into space. Its prototype vehicle known as SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity successfully engaged its rocket engine for the first time in flight, reaching a maximum speed of Mach 1.87 (1,424 miles per hour) in just 30 seconds. The team didn’t want to push the VSS Unity too hard on its first rocket-powered flight, but it still performed impressively.
The flight took place early on April 5, and it started like all previous SpaceShipTwo tests. The spacecraft was mounted to a carrier aircraft for the initial lift-off and ascent. At an altitude of 45,000 feet, SpaceShipTwo undocked from the mothership and began gliding. In previous flight tests, the craft headed down for a landing at this point. This time, the pilots fired VSS Unity’s rocket engine.
The engine uses a solid block of plastic rocket fuel with nitrous oxide as an oxidizer. The rocket pitched upward to an 80 degree angle and fired its engine, pushing the spaceplane to 84,271 feet (about 16 miles). That’s still far short of space, which is generally agreed to start at 60 miles high. Still, SpaceShipTwo reached supersonic speeds quickly and without incident.
After ending the burn, Unity dropped to 50,000 feet before deploying its twin tail booms to a 60 degree angle. This is known as the “feathered” configuration. It slows the craft so it can glide down for a conventional landing on a runway. Early deploying of the tail booms is what led to the regrettable crash of Unity’s predecessor, the VSS Enterprise, back in 2014. That crash killed one of the two pilots. The VSS Unity also ejected its remaining fuel oxidizer at this time.
The goal of Virgin Galactic is to carry passengers on a high parabolic trajectory past the Karman Line, an imaginary boundary where space begins. The trip will include several minutes of weightlessness in free fall. It’s going to be spendy, though. The company, founded by Richard Branson, is asking $250,000 per seat. Several hundred people have pre-purchased tickets.
The SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity is the first vehicle to be manufactured entirely by Virgin’s The Spaceship Company. Virgin Galactic is busy going over the test data from its first powered flight, but says this marks the beginning of its final phase of testing. You probably won’t be booking a ride any time soon at these prices. But a quick trip to space might not be unusual in the future.
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