Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Reaches New Heights
January 11, 2014

SpaceShipTwo Reaches New Heights During Third Test Flight Friday

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redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2) reusable space vehicle reached an altitude of 71,000 feet and speeds of Mach 1.4 during a supersonic test flight conducted early Friday morning, the Sir Richard Branson-owned commercial space travel firm has confirmed.

With chief pilot David Mackay and co-pilot Mark Stucky at the helm, the six-passenger aircraft lifted off from the Mojave Air and Space Port at 7:22am PST on Friday morning, according to Irene Klotz of Reuters.

It was SS2’s third rocket-powered test flight as it prepares for the world’s first commercial suborbital space flight later this year, and during the voyage it soared to heights approximately twice those normally achieved by commercial jetliners. It also completed a 20-second rocket burn over the Mojave Desert that allowed it to exceed the speed of sound.

According to W.J. Hennigan of the Los Angeles Times, Mackay and Stucky “tested the spaceship’s reaction control system, which will allow it to maneuver in space, and a newly installed thermal protection coating on the vehicle’s tail booms,” which is being evaluated for its ability to maintain vehicle skin temperatures when the rocket motor is firing. “All of the flight objectives were successfully completed,” the company told him.

In a statement, Mackay called the flight a “dream come true,” and added that he has seen SS2 “evolve… into an incredible vehicle that is going to open up space to more people than ever before. To be behind the controls and fly it as the rocket ignited is something I will never forget. She flew brilliantly. All the tests went really well and generated vital data that will be used to further fine-tune our operations.”

SpaceShipTwo, which was modeled after the award-winning SpaceShipOne prototype and built by Northrop Grumman-subsidiary Scaled Composites, has also made 28 glide flights, according to Reuters. Virgin Galactic is offering rides on the vehicle for $250,000, and according to reports, the company has already received payments or deposits from at least 650 would-be space travelers.

The first flights are expected to reach altitudes of over 65 miles above Earth, making it possible for passengers to see the curvature of the planet against the dark backdrop of space and experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Branson and his two children are expected to be among those on SS2’s inaugural space flight.

“I couldn’t be happier to start the New Year with all the pieces visibly in place for the start of full space flights. 2014 will be the year when we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space,” Branson said. “Today, we had our own Chief Pilot flying another flawless supersonic flight and proving the various systems required to take us safely to space, as well as providing the very best experience while we’re up there.”