Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity successfully completed its first supersonic, rocket-powered flight yesterday, advancing its mission to “open space for everyone”.

The milestone, which follows two years of extensive ground and atmospheric testing, marks the start of the final portion of Unity’s flight test programme.

The flight was also significant for Virgin Galactic’s Mojave-based, sister manufacturing organisation, The Spaceship Company. Unity is the first vehicle to be built from scratch for Virgin Galactic by The Spaceship Company’s team of aerospace engineers and technicians.

Blasting off

VSS Unity took off yesterday morning into the Mojave skies, with Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay in the cockpit, attached to the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, piloted by Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile.

The vehicles climbed to a launch altitude of around 46,500ft over the Sierra Nevada Mountains before Eve released Unity. Unity’s rocket launched into an 80-degree climb, accelerating to Mach 1.87 during the 30 seconds of rocket burn.

A Virgin Galactic statement notes: “On rocket shutdown, Unity continued an upwards coast to an apogee of 84,271ft before readying for the downhill return. At this stage, the pilots raised the vehicle’s tail booms to a 60-degree angle to the fuselage, into the ‘feathered’ configuration. This unique design feature, which is key to a reliable and repeatable re-entry capability for a winged vehicle, incorporates the additional safety mechanisms adopted after the 2014 VSS Enterprise test flight accident.

“At around 50,000ft, the tail-booms were lowered again and, while jettisoning the remaining oxidiser, Unity turned towards Mojave for the glide home and a smooth runway landing.”

The company, which is part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, says the flight has generated valuable data on flight, motor and vehicle performance which its engineers will be reviewing.

The statement said: “It also marks a key moment for the test flight programme, entering now the exciting phase of powered flight and the expansion to full duration rocket burns. While we celebrate that achievement, the team remains focused on the challenging tasks which still lie ahead.”

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