Virgin Galactic's new flight test to soar closer to edge of space

Virgin Galactic could soon reach space for the first time

A close-up of Virgin Galactic's SpaceshipTwo, seen Thursday during a test flight in Mojave, Calif. It's high enough to reach the United States government's recognized definition of space, but not the 62-mile "Karman line" that is internationally recognized as the boundary. Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides noted that recent research favours the lower altitude. Unity traveled at an altitude of about 50,000 feet between the twin fuselage cargo aircraft, before firing up its rocket engine to break into outer space.

Branson's space venture suffered a major setback in 2014 when its first space plane, VSS Enterprise, broke apart during a test flight, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold.

Unity's rocket burned for a total of 60 seconds, catapulting the spacecraft to a speed of Mach 2.9 - 2.9 times the speed of sound or 2,225 miles per hour.

On Thursday, Virgin Galactic will launch its mothership - dubbed the White Knight T (WK2) - from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

"It is a very very exciting time I think for investors investing in commercial space ship companies to do so", Branson said.

"The real limitation we're shooting for is an altitude", said Mike Moses, president of Virgin Galactic, ahead of the launch, as reported by SpaceNews. I'm really looking forward to going up myself next year.' He said the ship was 'magnificent", declaring: "'Space is Virgin territory!'

After the rocket plane reached a 50-mile altitude, with an apogee of 51.4 miles above Earth, Mr Branson shed tears and high-fived and hugged spectators. The flight also marked the first human-helmed spacecraft to reach the edge of space since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. Besides VSS Unity, two more SpaceShipTwo vehicles are now under construction, with the first of them expected to be completed in about a year.

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More than 600 people have committed up to $250,000 for rides that include several minutes of weightlessness and a view of the Earth far below.

Once released, the spaceship will fire up its rocket, and head for the sky.

Flown by two pilots, Mark Stucky and Nasa astronaut Frederick Sturckow, the aircraft made its rapid ascent as the rocket motor burned for 60 seconds.

"The amusing thing about races is people always say, "We're not in a race" until they actually win", Branson said.

Virgin Galactic has more tests of VSS Unity planned before moving to Spaceport America in New Mexico where it will set up its tourism operation. Three technicians were killed in 2007 by an explosion while testing a propellant system at Scaled Composites LLC, which built SpaceShipOne and was building the first SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic.

Sir Richard is in a race with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to send the first fee-paying passengers into space.

Replacement ship VSS Unity completed its first successful glide test in December 2016, and another six by January of this year. The spaceship will also be used for research: NASA had a science experiment on the test flight.

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