First Supersonic, Powered Flight For Virgin’s Unity

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Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, has completed its first supersonic, rocket-powered flight, the company announced last week. The aircraft was carried to a launch altitude of about 46,500 feet above the Sierra Nevada mountains by the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, then released. After a few seconds of glide, Unity’s rocket motor was engaged, and the pilots placed the spaceship into an 80-degree climb, accelerating to Mach 1.87 during the 30 seconds of rocket burn. On rocket shutdown, the ship continued an upwards coast to an apogee of 84,271 feet. The pilots then raised the vehicle’s tail booms to a 60-degree angle to the fuselage, into the “feathered” configuration. At around 50,000 feet, the tail booms were lowered again and Unity glided home to a smooth runway landing at Mojave.

The test flight expanded the envelope for the program as a whole, the company said, in terms of rocket-burn duration, speed and altitude. Unity is powered by a hybrid (nitrous oxide / HTPB compound) rocket motor. The aircraft was designed, built and tested by The Spaceship Company at Mojave. The feathered tail feature, which the company says is key to a reliable and repeatable re-entry capability for a winged vehicle, incorporates additional safety mechanisms adopted after the 2014 VSS Enterprise test-flight accident. The ship is designed to carry tourists to the edge of space, and then glide back to the surface for a runway landing.

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