Richard Branson's fledgling space tourism company Virgin Galactic performed a powered flight of its spacecraft today, the first since a fatal crash in 2014. The pilots then manoeuvred the Unity into an 80-degree climb, accelerating to Mach 1.87 during 30 seconds of rocket burn.
It was a big milestone for the firm as it marked Virgin Galactic's first powered flight since the 2014 crash of its original spaceship, where one of its two pilots died.
The hybrid rocket motor, which was designed, built and tested by The Spaceship Company, powered Unity through the transonic range and into supersonic flight before preparing for its return, Virgin said.
The aircraft was a SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket ship named Unity.
Virgin Galactic engineers are now reviewing the data on flight, motor and vehicle performance after this week's successful flight. 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. "Space feels tantalizingly close now", tweeted an ecstatic Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Galactic, after the brief flight.
The larger WhiteKnightTwo plane lifted Unity above the desert to an altitude of 46,500 feet before releasing the spacecraft.
With the engine shut down, Unity coasted upward to an apogee of 84,271 feet (25,686 meters).
At around 50,000 ft., the tail-booms were lowered again and, while jettisoning the remaining oxidizer, Unity turned toward Mojave for the glide home and a smooth runway landing.
SpaceShipTwo is based on famed aerospace designer Burt Rutan's smaller single-seat SpaceShipOne, which became the first privately funded spacecraft to fly above 100 kilometers, the accepted definition of where "space" begins, in 2004.
"Data review to come, then on to the next flight", he said in a tweet.
The spaceships are built by the Spaceship Company, which operates in Mojave and is a unit of Virgin Galactic. "While we celebrate that achievement, the team remains focused on the challenging tasks which still lie ahead", the company stated in a release issued after the flight.