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SpaceShipTwo test flight
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity space plane fires up its hybrid rocket motor during a test flight. (MarsScientific.com and Trumbull Studios)

Virgin Galactic sent its VSS Unity space plane skyward for a second supersonic rocket-powered test flight today, bringing the company one step closer toward reaching the space frontier.

“It was great to see our beautiful spaceship back in the air and to share the moment with the talented team who are taking us, step by step, to space,” Virgin Group billionaire founder Richard Branson said in a post-flight recap. “Seeing Unity soar upwards at supersonic speeds is inspiring and absolutely breathtaking. We are getting ever closer to realizing our goals.”

Also among those in attendance at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California was George T. Whitesides, the CEO of Virgin Galactic and its associated aerospace manufacturer, The SpaceShip Company.

Today’s test followed up on April’s first powered flight for the SpaceShipTwo craft. It traced the standard procedure developed for Virgin Galactic’s flights: A carrier airplane known as VMS Eve brought VSS Unity up to high altitude, then dropped the plane and its two test pilots into the air for free flight. Unity was piloted by Dave Mackay and Mark “Forger” Stucky, while C.J. Sturckow and Nicola Pecile were at Eve’s controls.

This time around, VSS Unity’s hybrid rocket motor was fired up for a partial burn to test “a rearward center of gravity closer to the commercial configuration,” the company said in a tweet. The addition of passenger seats and related equipment shifted the weight distribution more toward the back of the plane, compared to the configuration for the first rocket-powered test.

Virgin Galactic said the rocket motor burned for its planned duration of 31 seconds, and sent Unity to an altitude of 114,500 feet (34.9 kilometers). Top speed was Mach 1.9 — that is, 1.9 times the speed of sound.

VSS Unity successfully executed a “feathered-wing” maneuver to slow its descent and made a smooth landing back at Mojave’s runway. After studying the flight data, Virgin Galactic is expected to expand the envelope of the test program further, eventually reaching a phase when the rocket plane crosses the boundary into outer space. That could be 50 miles or 100 kilometers (62 miles), depending on your definition.

About 700 customers have signed up to ride VSS Unity and yet-to-be-completed sibling spacecraft, at a ticket price of as much as $250,000. Virgin Galactic has shied away from giving a precise time for the start of commercial operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico, but if the test program goes according to plan, that time could come within the next year or so.

“The pathway that Unity is forging is one that many thousands of us will take over time, and will help share a perspective that is crucial to solving some of humanity’s toughest challenges on planet Earth,” Branson said.

Today’s test flight provided a boost for Virgin Galactic more than three and a half years after the first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, broke apart during a rocket-powered test outing. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed in that accident, and pilot Pete Siebold was injured.

Here’s Virgin Galactic’s stream of tweets about today’s test:

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