On Thursday, the Virgin Galactic‘s VSS Unity rocketplane reached Mach 2.47 in speed and 52 kilometers in altitude on the vehicle’s third test flight with the hybrid motor firing. This video shows highlights of the test:

If the program continues to make steady progress, the vehicle should cross the border of space this year,  perhaps within two or three more test flights. (Whether VG will define the 100 km Kármán line as the threshold to space or the USAF’s 80 km, has not been clarified yet.) Then sometime in 2019 they could begin taking six paying passengers at a time to space on a regular basis. Currently about 700 people are holding tickets for flights on Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicles. The current ticket price is $250,000.

Blue Origin is on roughly the same time schedule with the New Shepard vertically launched system. New Shepard vehicles have reached over 100 km eight times on test flights since 2015 but without anyone on board. Unity, on the other hand, always has two pilots and will carry up to six passengers. The six passengers on a New Shepard will ride without pilots and instead rely on autonomous control.

Virgin Galactic posted the following statement about this week’s test:

Into the Mesosphere at Mach 2.4

Virgin Galactic’s Third Powered Flight on July 26th 2018

Virgin Galactic test pilots broke Mach 2 this morning, as VSS Unity took her third rocket-powered supersonic outing in less than four months. After a clean release from carrier aircraft VMS Eve at 46,500 ft, pilots Dave Mackay and Mike “Sooch” Masucci lit the spaceship’s rocket motor, before pulling up into a near vertical climb and powering towards the black sky at 2.47 times the speed of sound.

The planned 42 seconds rocket burn took pilots and spaceship through the Stratosphere and, at an apogee of 170,800 ft [52 km], into the Mesosphere for the first time. This region, often referred to by scientists as the “Ignorosphere”, is an under-studied atmospheric layer because it is above the range of balloon flight, and in the future is an area we can help the research community explore further.

After a safe landing back at Mojave Air and Space Port, Chief Pilot Dave Mackay summed up the experience:

“It was a thrill from start to finish. 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.”

Sooch added:

“Having been a U2 pilot and done a lot of high altitude work, or what I thought was high altitude work, the view from 170,000 ft was just totally amazing. The flight was exciting and frankly beautiful. We were able to complete a large number of test points which will give us good insight as we progress to our goal of commercial service.”

Every time VSS Unity is tested on the ground, or in the skies, we gain invaluable experience and fresh data. This continuously improves our modelling and helps us optimise objectives and test points as we progressively expand the flight envelope. Today’s test, among other things, gathered more data on supersonic aerodynamics as well as thermal dynamics.

VSS Unity lands after its third powered flight.

As it has been on previous flights, Unity’s cabin was equipped to gather data vital to the future safety and experience of our astronaut customers. These cabin analysis systems record a host of parameters that are designed to help us further understand the environment inside the cabin during powered flight – temperatures, pressures, humidity, acoustics, thermal response, vibration, acceleration and even radiation.

The carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, was piloted today by Todd Ericson and Kelly Latimer.

Congratulations to everyone at Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company today for achieving another significant step towards commercial service. With VSS Unity, VMS Eve and the pilots safely back on the ground, we will now analyze the post-flight data as we plan and prepare for our next flight.

For downloadable assets from today’s flight please visit our Press FTP.