Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered VSS Unity spaceship has smashed its previous speed record, reaching Mach 2.47 in a Thursday test. The rocket-powered vehicle had previously only achieved 1.9 times the speed of sound.
This was also Unity’s first trip up into the mesosphere, the layer above the Earth’s stratosphere (where commercial airliners fly) and below the thermosphere (where the International Space Station resides.)
“Having been a U2 pilot and done a lot of high altitude work, or what I thought was high altitude work, the view from 170,000 feet was just totally amazing,” said Mike Masucci, one of the two test pilots. “The flight was exciting and frankly beautiful. We were able to complete a large number of test points which will give us good insight as we progress to our goal of commercial service.”
Thursday’s outing was Unity’s third since Richard Branson’s company made its return to rocket-powered testing in April. It took a break from those after 2014, when a pilot was killed in the crash of the VSS Enterprise spacecraft, and conducted only unpowered test flights in the interim.
The speed that Unity achieved on this flight comfortably beat the top speed of the Concorde supersonic passenger airliner, which was Mach 2.04.
The standing record for a manned aircraft was set back in 1967, when the rocket-powered North American X-15 achieved a whopping Mach 6.72. NASA’s X-43 achieved the overall air-speed record in 2004, at Mach 9.6, but that wasn’t a manned vehicle.