Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane flew higher than ever before in its third powered flight.
A Virgin Galactic rocket launched its commercial spacecraft and the two pilots aboard more than 30 miles into the atmosphere above the Mojave Desert at almost two and a half times the speed of sound.
The VSS Unity’s third launch marked the first time a Virgin Galactic spaceship entered the mesosphere, a middle layer of Earth’s atmosphere 30 to 50 miles above its surface, an altitude too high for commercial aircraft and weather balloons to reach. Company heads hope the successful test proves its first round of space tours isn’t too far off.
The “space plane,” propelled by rockets for more than 40 seconds to reach a speed of Mach 2.47, traveled more than 170,800 feet in the atmosphere. The next step, Virgin engineers said, is to cross the Kármán Line, 62 miles above the Earth’s sea level, which is commonly considered the point where the atmosphere ends and space begins.
But the VSS Unity might have flown even closer to the edge of space than previously thought, according to new research released Wednesday that claims the Kármán Line is actually 43 to 55 miles from the Earth’s surface. There, aircrafts must travel at a speed greater than orbital velocity to remain in the air.
The Unity’s initial launch in April, when it reached an altitude of 84,000 feet at Mach 1.87, was the company’s first in four years since the failed flight of its SpaceShipTwo in October 2014. That craft broke and crashed after launch, killing one of the pilots and injuring another, who escaped with a parachute.