Virgin Galactic tests passenger rocket ship, 3 years after fatal accident

SpaceShipTwo test flight

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 pilots then manoeuvred the Unity into an 80-degree climb, accelerating to Mach 1.87 during 30 seconds of rocket burn.

For the first time in about four years, Virgin Galactic has fired up the rocket motors in one of its spacecraft for a test flight.

The company says the spacecraft achieved supersonic speed before the pilots shut down the engine and it glided back to Mojave Air & Space Port.

The aircraft was a SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket ship named Unity.

Founded in 2004, the company has not yet announced a date for the start of passenger flights but is selling tickets for a ride aboard SpaceShipTwo at $250,000 a seat. The gliding test flights allowed the spaceship to drift back to the ground after detaching from the mothership rather than powering its engine so it could climb farther away from Earth.

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At this stage, the pilots raised the vehicle's tail booms to a 60 degree angle to the fuselage, into the "feathered" configuration. In so doing they rode Unity through the transonic range and into supersonic flight - for the first time. Unity was built by Virgin Galactic's partner, The Spaceship Company. The new spacecraft includes better safety controls for the tail wing's locking mechanism, which was a factor in the crash. The runway landing was described as smooth.

"The flight has generated valuable data on flight, motor and vehicle performance which our engineers will be reviewing", Virgin Galactic said.

Today's test puts Virgin back on track toward Branson's goal of shuttling paying tourists on short trips into suborbital space. The next phase of testing is also now ready to commence, which will expand the duration of the rocket burns to their full potential under the design. While the company celebrates that achievement, the team remains focused on the challenging tasks which still lie ahead.

Aerospace organizations from a nation away congratulated the NewSpace firm on its successful test flight.

Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations.

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