Virgin Galactic Go Faster and Higher

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo sets new altitude and speed records.
The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo at the peak of its 52-kilometer altitude during the third powered test flight | Image credit: Virgin Galactic

Space tourism provider Virgin Galactic has set new altitude and speed records pushing their SpaceShipTwo vehicle to its limit. The successful powered test flight built on previous testing in validating the vehicle for commercial flight operations.

Virgin Galactic performed its third powered flight test of their SpaceShipTwo vehicle on 26 July. The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California with the SpaceShipTwo strapped between its two fuselages. At 16:45 GMT (12:45 EDT) the SpaceShipTwo vehicle separated from the carrier aircraft and fired its hybrid engine.

During the 42-second burn, the SpaceShipTwo climbed to an altitude of 52 kilometers and hit a top speed of Mach 2.47. The flight also set a new benchmark for reentry at Mach 1.7. It was the first reentry to takes place at supersonic speeds. The test surpassed expectations with George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic stating the hybrid engine appeared to be providing, “a little bit of extra thrust.”

In addition to the pilots Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci, the flight carried a third passenger, a mannequin. It was seated in the rear of the vehicle to approximate the weight of a real passenger during flight. The mannequin was also fitted with a number of sensors to monitor “temperatures, pressures, humidity, acoustics, thermal response, vibration, acceleration and even radiation.”

Although the flight has been deemed a success, Virgin Galactic engineers will review the data collected during the test before going ahead with further flights. It is believed that if the vehicle receives a clean bill of health, the next powered test will be a full duration burn of 60 seconds. The burn will push the SpaceShipTwo to the edge of space and validate its operational suitability.