Virgin Galactic conducted the first rocket-powered flight of the VSS Unity, its latest SpaceShipTwo spaceplane. Unity hit a speed of Mach 1.87 during the flight, breaking the sound barrier for the very first time. WhiteKnightTwo carried the Unity up to an altitude of 46,500′ and dropped SpaceShipTwo, which is powered by a hybrid rocket engine. The Unity started an 80⁰ climb, fast-tracking up to Mach 1.87 within the first thirty seconds of engine burn.
It is also the first time that a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo has launched its rocket engine since the deadly crash of the VSS Enterprise, the first SpaceShipTwo, on the 31st of October 2014. The Unity’s tail boom feather system uses extra safety mechanisms that were implemented after the VSS Enterprise test flight crash. While the extra safety mechanisms and upgrades made the Unity heavier, the developers of the aircraft were able to make it stronger than the VSS Enterprise.
It is also due to this development that the VSS Unity can fly to a maximum altitude of above 80 km. The VSS Enterprise can fly to an altitude of above 100 km, which is known as the Karman line or the internationally recognized space boundary. Thus, the VSS Unity will not ideally fly to space but it will reach high altitudes where the Earth’s curvature is plainly visible.
The VSS Unity engine was directed by Dave Mackay and Mark “Forger” Stucky. After shutting it down, they coasted the spaceplane up to 84,271′. They then positioned the Unity’s feather system to start floating back down to Earth. The feathered configuration caused the spaceplane’s twin tail booms to lift to a 60⁰ angle off the fuselage. This allowed the Unity to fall with its nose facing down. After floating down to approximately 50,000′, the tail booms were moved into their original position. SpaceShipTwo discarded excess oxidizer as it floated back to land on an airstrip at Mojave. The flight test was successful and collected data about the performance of the aircraft during the engine burn and its shift from subsonic to supersonic speed.
The successful rocket-powered flight test of the VSS Unity is a huge breakthrough for Virgin Galactic. It also marks the commencement of the powered flight testing stage. SpaceShipTwo will fire rocket engines for longer burns in the future. If everything goes well, it might be possible for interested individuals to buy a ticket on SpaceShipTwo in the future.