Virgin Galactic completes its first powered flight — what’s next?

It wasn’t so long ago that we were celebrating Virgin Galactic’s return to the skies after a two-year hiatus. Now, just a few months after the VSS Unity completed its 11th glide test, the spaceplane has completed its first powered test. This marks the first time that Virgin Galactic has executed a powered test flight since the tragic crash in 2014 that claimed the life of one of its pilots.

The supersonic, rocket-powered flight was heralded as a “major step forward” by the Virgin Galactic team, as it is the “final portion of Unity’s flight test program.” This spaceplane makes use of the many lessons that Virgin learned from the VSS Enterprise, and has achieved new heights in terms of rocket burn duration, speed, and altitude.

The VSS Unity took flight in the Mojave desert while attached to the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. Together, the two climbed to an altitude of 46,500 feet, at which point Unity was released. A few seconds later, the vehicle’s rocket motor was ignited, and pilots moved into “an 80-degree climb, accelerating to Mach 1.87 during the 30 seconds of rocket burn.” This marks the first time that the hybrid rocket motor transported Unity into supersonic flight.

“The flight has generated valuable data on flight, motor and vehicle performance which our engineers will be reviewing,” Virgin noted in a blog post. “It also marks a key moment for the test flight program, entering now the exciting phase of powered flight and the expansion to full duration rocket burns. While we celebrate that achievement, the team remains focused on the challenging tasks which still lie ahead.”

Virgin Galactic celebrated its first couple test runs in December 2016, and in August 2017, the company achieved a dry run for real rocket-powered flights carrying both propulsion components and 1,000 pounds of water to mimic the weight of fuel casing. Space enthusiasts have already begun vying for a ticket to beyond Earth’s atmosphere once SpaceShipTwo is ready to go. In fact, Virgin Galactic says, it has about 700 customers who have already signed up to be passengers.

Updated on April 6: Virgin Galactic says it conducted its first powered flight. 

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