Virgin Galactic test pilots broke Mach 2 late last week, 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 14,173 metres, 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-second rocket burn took pilots and the spaceship through the Stratosphere and, at an apogee of 52,059 metres, 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 [52,059 metres] was 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.”
Virgin Galactic said that every time VSS Unity is tested on the ground, or in the skies, the company gains new “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.”
“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.”
In an updated statement, Virgin Galactic said “it will officially launch operations from Spaceport America in New Mexico with paying passengers once it believes it is safe to do so and has received all regulatory approvals.”
Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson told Bloomberg he was hopeful of sitting in a Virgin Galactic spaceship, going into space “before the end of the year.”