Virgin Galactic just made it halfway to space

Picture: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic’s pilots are getting closer to a $US250,000 view.

This morning, Dave Mackay and Mike “Sooch” Masucci successfully piloted VSS Unity into the “Ignorosphere” – an atmospheric layer beyond the reach of research balloons some 52km above the Earth.

Technically, it’s known as the Mesosphere, but is notoriously difficult to reach and study cheaply.

This morning’s 42-second burn took Unity to its highest elevation, breaking Mach 2 as it climbed from 46,500 feet away from launch vehicle WhiteKnightTwo and up to 170,800 feet.

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It’s still just over halfway to space, but the views are exceptional. Here’s what the reported 700 people who have already booked their very pricey tickets will experience:

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The plan is those passengers will actually make it “an official space altitude”.

They’ll only get to leave their seats and float in zero gravity for a few minutes, but the ticket price also includes three days of preparation at New Mexico’s Spaceport America.

Between SpaceShipTwo – which crashed in 2014 – and VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic has now completed 71 flights for almost 30 minutes of independent flight time once released from WhiteKnightTwo.

Mackay said Unity’s rocket motor performed “magnificently”.

“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,” he said.

Massucci described the experience as “exciting and frankly beautiful”.

“Having been a U2 pilot and done a lot of high altitude work, or what I thought was high altitude work, the view from 170,000ft was just totally amazing.”

Virgin Galactic is only counting on being the first commercial human spaceflight service to turn a profit though. Its vehicle will also be able to be converted to carry almost half a tonne of payload into space for “affordable” experiments, and sister company Virgin Orbit has its eyes on a slice of the small satellite launch pie.

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