Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceplane accomplished a suborbital flight

The VSS Unity spaceplane (Photo courtesy Virgin Galactic. All rights reserved)
The VSS Unity spaceplane (Photo courtesy Virgin Galactic. All rights reserved)

It was yesterday morning in California when Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane called VSS Unity took off connected to its White Knight Two mother ship from the Mojave Air and Space Port. Once reached 15,000 meters (about 43,000 feet) above sea level, VSS Unity was dropped and its engine brought it to an altitude of 82.7 kilometers (about 51.4 miles), below the 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the Kármán Line which officially marks the border with the space but above the 80 kilometers (50 miles) considered by some institutions as that borderline.

For years millionaire Richard Branson has been trying to launch suborbital trips on a spaceplane, a hybrid between an airplane and a spaceship, equipped with an engine that allows it to go up to the boundaries of the Earth’s atmosphere. The terrible accident of November 2014 showed in the harshest way all the risks that that type of trip involved but the development of the SpaceShipTwo resumed with a new spaceplane that was named VSS Unity. After a number of tests including three flights, in recent days Branson announced a space flight.

It was early morning in California when the White Knight Two mother ship took off carrying the VSS Unity spaceplane. After about an hour, it reached the 15,000 meters altitude where it released the VSS Unity, whose pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “CJ” Sturckow switched on the rocket engine for a 60 second burn to accelerate until almost three times the speed of sound.

The most important thing is that the VSS Unity spaceplane reached an altitude of 82.7 kilometers. After the pilots brought it back to Mojave Air and Space Port, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recognized it, as it considers the altitude of 80 kilometers as the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and space. In the coming weeks, the pilots will receive wings as commercial astronauts in an official ceremony. Frederick “CJ” Sturckow already completed four space missions in three different Space Shuttles so he received similar wings from NASA and will be the first to receive them from the FAA as well.

Virgin Galactic published tweets about the event that include a couple of videos:

Apart from the controversy regarding the Kármán Line, for Virgin Galactic it’s a great success that could finally pave the way for space tourism, even if right now only with suborbital trips. The ticket price is $250,000 but there are already many reservations. The start announced for 2019 this time seems realistic.

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