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

Virgin Galactic sent its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity, to its highest-ever altitude today during its third powered test flight — setting the stage for a full-powered push across the boundary of outer space.

Unity was hooked beneath its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane this morning for takeoff from Mojave Air and Space Port in California. About an hour into the flight, the rocket plane was dropped into the air and fired its single hybrid rocket motor, punching upward into the sky.

Virgin Galactic reported that the craft executed a 42-second rocket burn and hit a top speed of Mach 2.47. Maximum altitude was 170,800 feet (32 miles, or 52 kilometers). That’s higher than high-altitude balloons can fly, and more than halfway to outer space.

VSS Unity’s two previous rocket-powered flights involved shorter rocket burns and rose no higher than 114,500 feet.

On the way down, Unity deployed its “feathered-wing” re-entry system to slow its descent. Peak re-entry speed was Mach 1.7, marking the first time Unity went supersonic on the way down.

Virgin Galactic said pilots Dave Mackay and Mike “Sooch” Masucci guided Unity through its glide back to the Mojave airport. Todd Ericson and Kelly Latimer piloted WhiteKnightTwo.

“It was a thrill from start to finish,” Mackay said in a post-landing statement. “Unity’s rocket motor performed magnificently again, and Sooch pulled off a smooth landing. This was a new altitude record for both of us in the cockpit, not to mention our mannequin in the back, and the views of Earth from the black sky were magnificent.”

The mannequin, dubbed Annie (short for “anthropomorphic”), was placed in a passenger seat and outfitted with vibration and noise sensors to assess what Virgin Galactic’s customers would eventually experience.

For his part, Masucci said the flight was “exciting and frankly beautiful.”

“Having been a U-2 pilot and done a lot of high altitude work, or what I thought was high altitude work, the view from 170,000 feet was just totally amazing,” he said.

Today was a “terrific day,” said Enrico Palermo, president of The Spaceship Company. TSC is the sister company in charge of manufacturing SpaceShipTwo rocket planes and WhiteKnightTwo motherships for Virgin Galactic.

“We hit our planned target duration today,” Palermo told GeekWire.

The flight was aimed at checking VSS Unity’s aerodynamics and thermal dynamics with a longer rocket firing duration, higher altitude and faster speeds. The preliminary results are encouraging, Palermo said, but the SpaceShipTwo team will need a few more weeks to conduct a full analysis.

Palermo said that analysis will determine how many more steps it will take to get to a safe, full-duration burn of 60 seconds, with a minimum target altitude of 50 miles (264,000 feet, or 80 kilometers).

Fifty miles is the altitude standard used by the U.S. Air Force for doling out astronaut wings, but it’s below the internationally accepted 100-kilometer (62-mile) boundary of outer space. For what it’s worth, that boundary, known as the Karman Line, may someday be redrawn at around the 50-mile mark.

Although Virgin Galactic reported no glitches in the wake of today’s flight, the company’s path hasn’t always been smooth: In 2014, the first SpaceShipTwo plane, dubbed VSS Enterprise, broke up during a rocket-powered flight, killing the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot.

Over the past four years, Virgin Galactic has incorporated safety-related upgrades in the design of VSS Unity and changed its procedures for flight training and testing.

“We spent 14 years working on our space program,” Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, told Bloomberg’s David Rubenstein in May. “It’s been tough. Space is tough. It is rocket science. … Before the end of the year, I hope to be sitting in a Virgin Galactic spaceship, going to space.”

He said about 800 people have paid as much as $250,000 to reserve a seat on the plane, which will fly out of Spaceport America in New Mexico once commercial operations begin.

Branson isn’t the only billionaire building a suborbital spaceship: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is developing a vertical-launch craft called New Shepard. That rocket ship is currently going through uncrewed, autonomously controlled tests, and Bezos is aiming to begin flying test astronauts this year.

If all goes well, Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin is expected to announce a ticket price and start taking passenger reservations next year.

Previously:

Update for 2 p.m. PT July 26: We’ve added post-flight data and quotes from the pilots and from Enrico Palermo, president of The Spaceship Company.

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