Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic tests spaceship above California's Mojave Desert

Tyler Owen
April 7, 2018

"Virgin Galactic back on track", tweeted founder Richard Branson following the brief flight.

On Thursday, pilots Mark "Forger" Stucky and Dave Mackay were in the cockpit of Unity as it took off from Mojave Air & Space Port at 8:02 a.m. attached to VMS Eve and climbed to an altitude of 46,500 feet over the Sierra Nevada. After a few seconds, Unity kickstarted its rocket motor and the pilots aimed the spaceship upwards into an 80 degree climb, accelerating to Mach 1.87 during the 30 seconds of rocket burn.

A ticket to ride the space plane now sells for $250,000.

Virgin Galactic's USS Unity on the edge of orbit.

VSS Unity is a part of the SpaceShipTwo class of spaceplanes designed by Virgin Galactic's Spaceship Company to be dropped from a mothership, the WhiteKnightTwo. The spaceship, dubbed VSS Unity by the late British physicist Stephen Hawking during a 2016 ceremony, has now undergone 12 total flight tests.

The firm praised pilots Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile for the "great milestone test flight". At around 50,000ft, the tail-booms were lowered again before Unity glided to a runway landing.

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An investigation later determined that the accident occurred because Alsbury unlocked Enterprise's "feathering" descent system too early. The agency later faulted that spaceship's builder, Scaled Composites, saying the design should have protected against human error.

While Unity has flown with the mother ship before, and has been released in glide tests, this is the first time it's fired up its rocket to fly on its own.

It was Unity's first attempt at transonic flight.

The tail booms are famous because "feathers" because their function has been likened to the feathers of the badminton shuttlecock.

"It also marks a key moment for the test flight programme, entering now the exciting phase of powered flight and the expansion to full duration rocket burns". For now, the company's engineers will be reviewing the valuable flight, motor, and performance data gleaned from the test flight. "While we celebrate that achievement, the team remains focused on the challenging tasks which still lie ahead".

"Space feels tantalizingly close now", he added.

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