Virgin Galactic’s ambition to launch tourists into space has moved forward with the first supersonic flight of VSS Unity, a reusable spaceplane built by The Spaceship Company.
The flight, which took place in California on April 5, 2018, starts the final phase of Unity’s flight test program before the vehicle is delivered Virgin Galactic for commercial service.
Piloted by Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay, VSS Unity took off attached to VMS Eve, the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft piloted by Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile.
VSS Unity above Sierra Nevada Mountains
At a launch altitude of around 46,500ft Eve released Unity, whose hybrid (nitrous oxide/rubber compound) rocket motor was then initiated. The pilots then manoeuvred the Unity into an 80-degree climb, accelerating to Mach 1.87 during 30 seconds of rocket burn.
VSS Unity First Powered Flight, April 5, 2018
Key to commercial operations will be SpaceShipTwo’s ‘feathered’ re-entry configuration, which involves raising the vehicle’s tail booms to a 60-degree angle to the fuselage to slow the aircraft’s decent.
VSS Unity’s view of Earth
This manoeuvre was initiated after the Unity’s rocket motor was shut down and the aircraft had reached an apogee of 84,271 feet. At around 50,000ft, the tail-booms were lowered again before Unity glided to a runway landing.