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The spacecraft of Virgin Galactic flew higher than ever on its third powered flight



This morning, the space tourism company Virgin Galactic successfully flown its spacecraft over the Mojave Desert during another engine test, catapulting the vehicle to the highest altitude. It is the third time that the vehicle, VSS Unity, has detonated its engine during the flight . It's another successful test among the many that Virgin Galactic plans before people fly for the first time.

The last time the VSS Unity conquered the sky was in May, when she completed her second powered flight from Virgin Galactic's base at the Mojave Air and Space Port. After a 31-second surf break, this journey sent the spacecraft 22 miles above the surface at a speed of Mach 1

.9, or twice the speed of sound. But today's test flight has driven the vehicle even further. The two test pilots of VSS Unity, Mike Masucci and Dave Mackay, fired the engine for a total of 42 seconds and pushed the vehicle to Mach 2.47 and a height of about 32.3 miles. That's still not high enough to be considered as the space that arguably starts at about 62 miles. But Virgin Galactic is now more than halfway there.

It is still unclear how many tests Virgin Galactic plans before passengers begin to fly. "We're making good progress," says George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic CEO, The Verge . "I think we need to look at today's data, we still have some testing in our test flight program." Whitesides adds that things are "becoming very real".

Whitesides says that the company ultimately has three phases of testing. The first phase, which is currently underway, is to see that the vehicle is structurally sound and can enter space. During these flights Virgin Galactic flew aboard a mannequin named Annie as a replacement passenger. The second phase will refer to Whitesides as a "cabin test", during which the company will test the operations that are performed inside the vessel during passenger flights. "Because we let people get up, we want to make sure they are well educated," says Whitesides. "That we can train them properly to make sure they get out of their seats and back into their seats, that they can move around in the cabin, all we have to do is make sure that the space-based techniques we've developed on the ground are good work. "

After completing these tests, the team will move to Virgin Galact's future home, Spaceport America, New Mexico, where the company plans to conduct its first commercial flights. Whitesides says the plan is to do a few test flights there to get the pilots used to the new facility and airspace. And when that's done, VSS Unity will carry its first paying customers.


VSS Unity slips back to land after its second motorized flight test
Image: Virgin Galactic

The VSS Unity is Virgin Galact's first-vehicle company will use to take paying customers to the edge of the room and back. It does not take off vertically, like most other vertical rockets, but gets an initial boost by going high under the wing of a giant carrier called WhiteKnightTwo. As soon as the pair reaches a height of about 45,600 feet, VSS Unity is released and drops out for a few seconds. Then the spacecraft ignites its rocket motor, which drives the vehicle up through the atmosphere.

Ultimately, the goal is for VSS Unity to reach a height of between 50 and 62 miles after a 60-second engine fire. At this altitude, all passengers on board will experience a few minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth. VSS Unity uses a feathering system that allows its wings to move up, making the vehicle slower and allowing the spacecraft to safely return to Earth's atmosphere. The spacecraft should then glide and land on a runway like a typical airplane.

However, it was the suspension system that was responsible in part for a fatal accident from one of Virgin Galactic's previous spacecraft in 2014. During a motorized test, the wings changed too early after one of the test pilots opened the system ahead of schedule , The vehicle broke, causing the death of one pilot and injuring the other.

Almost four years later, the new VSS Unity, which was launched in 2016, has flown a total of ten times, including seven gliding flights. Although Virgin Galactic says it lost a few customers after the crash in 2014, the company has managed to sell 700 tickets for future passengers at a cost of $ 250,000 per seat. In May, founder of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson, said he was "months away, not years away" after riding into space in his company's spacecraft, according to an interview with BBC Radio.


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