Virgin Galactic is celebrating a successful second test flight of SpaceShipTwo, the rocket-powered passenger spacecraft that may someday take tourists to the edge of space. Today’s test took the VSS Unity, the second craft built in this class, up to 114,500 feet and Mach 1.9, or nearly 1,300 miles per hour.
Unity’s first powered flight was less than two months ago, which was itself the first powered flight Virgin Galactic had attempted since the fatal breakup of the company’s previous SpaceShipTwo-class spacecraft, Enterprise, in 2014.
Much has been redone since then, but the basics of the Virgin Galactic flight style are the same. A relatively traditional jet-powered plane, a WhiteKnightTwo class plane (in this case the VMS Eve), carries the SpaceShipTwo craft (Unity) up to somewhere around 45,000 feet. There the latter detaches and fires up its rocket engine, accelerating to high speed and high altitude, after which it glides to the surface and lands more or less like any other plane.
Today’s test flight followed these parameters to the letter, though the numbers were considerably higher than April’s flight. The rockets burned for 31 seconds total, and the craft’s unique “feather” system for slowing its descent was deployed successfully.
The Unity is designed to handle nearly twice the speeds achieved today, but these tolerances must of course be approached gradually and the various systems tested under friendly conditions before moving on to hostile ones.
“It was great to see our beautiful spaceship back in the air and to share the moment with the talented team who are taking us, step by step, to space,” said Virgin founder Richard Branson in a press release. “Seeing Unity soar upwards at supersonic speeds is inspiring and absolutely breathtaking. We are getting ever closer to realizing our goals. Congratulations to the whole team!”
I’ve asked the company for a few more details on the flight, as well as when we can expect a third test.