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

Virgin Galactic could soon reach space for the first time

Virgin Galactic could soon reach space for the first time

Rocket man and Virgin billionaire Richard Branson's commercial space programme successfully reached the edge of the world's atmosphere for the first time in its fourth test flight across the U.S. today. While SpaceX has had some high-profile launches of its own lately, Virgin Galactic says Thursday's flight marks "the very first time that a crewed vehicle built for commercial, passenger service, has reached space".

Virgin's twin-fuselage carrier airplane which held the SpaceShipTwo passenger spacecraft took off soon after 7am local time from the Mojave Air and Space Port, about 90 miles (145 km) north of Los Angeles.

The rocket ship hit an altitude of 82 kilometres before beginning its gliding descent, mission official Enrico Palermo said. It landed minutes later. The company aims to take paying customers on the six-passenger rocket, which is about the size of an executive jet. Test pilots Mark Stucky and Rick Sturckow fired up its rocket motor and catapulted the plane some 50 miles above Earth. It burned for a total of 60 seconds and drove the vehicle directly upward at almost three times the speed of sound.

The two pilots will attempt to launch the craft on a supersonic flight to the edge of space for the first time.

Unlike a traditional rocket which takes off from the ground, VSS Unity is flown to 43,000 feet underneath a specially designed airliner before being dropped and subsequently lighting up its rocket engines to power it vertically to an even higher altitude.

After the test flight, Branson said he aimed for first commercial flight as early as March 2019. That's about a mile and a half past what the US government recognizes as the edge of space.

Along with the two test pilots on board, SpaceShipTwo was carrying four microgravity experiments selected by NASA, including the University of Central Florida's Collisions Into Dust Experiment, or COLLIDE.

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Virgin Galactic headed into space for the first time

"But over the years, the price of crossing the Atlantic came down and down and down, and if we can get enough spaceships built and flying, I'm really hopeful that a lot of people watching your program one day will be able to go to space", he said.

Virgin Galactic reaches space for the first time during its 4th powered flight from Mojave, Calif. The FAA plans to formally honor the pilots of Thursday's flight by awarding them astronaut wings at a ceremony in Washington next year.

Hundreds watched the space tourism plane take off at 7.10am and successfully land back at the test centre, which Mr Branson described as "a relief".

When it's fully up and running, VSS Unity will carry passengers on brief trips to suborbital space, for $250,000 per ticket.

More than 600 people have committed up to $US250,000 for rides that include several minutes of weightlessness and a view of the Earth far below.

"If all goes to plan our pilots will experience an extended period of micro-gravity as VSS Unity coasts to apogee", Virgin Galactic said.

After arriving back at the test centre, the co-pilot, Mr Stucky, said: "It was a great flight".

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