Virgin Galactic launched the fourth test of its SpaceShipTwo in the Mojave Desert Thursday, sending the spacecraft closer to space than ever before.
The test launch, which took place at 10 a.m. ET, launched more than 50 miles into the air, meeting the Federal Aviation Administration’s definition of space. In addition to the two pilots, SpaceShipTwo was also carrying a dummy to simulate a passenger and four unspecified research payloads that are part of the NASA Flight Opportunities Program.
While SpaceShipTwo didn’t reach orbit, it brought Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic one step closer to being able to carry tourists into space. The flight also marked the first human-helmed spacecraft to reach the edge of space since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011.
The company planned to burn the rockets for about 50 seconds, not to their full capacity but enough to send the spacecraft and its two pilots to the edge of space. Virgin Galactic wound up surpassing its previous record of 32.3 miles from July’s test flight and reached just below the Kármán line at 62 miles above Earth, which marks the boundary between the upper atmosphere and outer space.
Rather than following the NASA strategy of a vertically launched rocket, Virgin Galactic uses a rocket-powered space plane. Dubbed VSS Unity it took off from the runway attached to its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo. Then at 43,000 feet — more than 8 miles high — its pilots commanded the plane’s release and switched on VSS Unity’s rocket engine to drive the vehicle directly upward at supersonic speeds.
“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. “The time it takes to get to that altitude is variable, based on the trajectory that the pilot flies.”
As VSS Unity returned to Earth, it fanned out a large tail that will guide the plane back through the Earth’s atmosphere and toward Mojave for a runway landing.
Based on the success of Thursday’s launch, Virgin Galactic plans to move ahead with full-duration burns of the SpaceShipTwo rocket, about 60 seconds. “This is a test flight,” said George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, “with all of the novelty and excitement and risk that goes along with a real test flight.”
Richard Branson said last month he was “pretty sure” his company would send tourists into space by Christmas, but he’s been known to be overly optimistic. The company has already sold about 600 tickets, costing up to $250,000, and Branson himself plans to be on the first passenger trip aboard the VSS Unity,
If it keeps to Branson’s schedule, Virgin Galactic would beat out competing companies including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which plans to begin selling tickets in 2019.