Virgin Galactic’s latest test flight takes it to the edge of space

Update: Virgin Galactic claims the mission was a success. The passenger rocket reached a height of around 51 miles up.

SpaceX isn’t the only company carrying out launches with the goal of eventually taking private individuals into space. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is currently getting ready for an imminent major test flight from Mojave, California. The flight will take the company’s VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane to the edge of space. This will be the vehicle’s fourth powered flight, and its most ambitious yet — including some time spent in microgravity.

“Overall the goal of this flight is to fly higher and faster than previous flights,” the company notes on its website. “We plan to burn the rocket motor for longer than we ever have in flight before, but not to its full duration. At the end stages of the rocket burn in the thin air of the mesosphere and with the speeds that we expect to achieve, additional altitude is added rapidly. That results in new and important data points, particularly relating to supersonic handling qualities and thermal dynamics, both of which we will be watching closely in the cockpit and on the ground in Mission Control.”

In short, the flight is intended as a crucial fact-finding mission with regards to the ship’s optimal operation. It will answer such questions as what stage to shut the rocket motor down at. “If all goes to plan our pilots will experience an extended period of micro-gravity as VSS Unity coasts to apogee, although [our two pilots] will remain securely strapped in throughout,” the company’s statement continues.

The launch window for the test flight opens today and runs through December 15. Unlike a SpaceX launch, it does not appear that there will be a livestream of the test, although Virgin Galactic has promised that it will share footage of “some pretty spectacular views” taken from onboard the ship soon after the test flight has taken place. One other crucial difference from the SpaceX launch is that Virgin Galactic’s flight does not launch from the ground. Instead, it is carried to around 50,000 feet beneath the company’s WhiteKnightTwo plane, before detaching and igniting its rocket engine.

Virgin Galactic was founded back in 2004. Since then, more than 600 people have reserved spaces to fly on its reusable space vehicles. Prices for a ticket started at $200,000 per person, and were later raised to $250,000. Branson has said he hopes costs will one day be reduced to around $40,000 or $50,000 per ticket.

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