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Virgin Galactic completes SpaceShipTwo test flight three years after fatal accident

Virgin Galactic has successfully completed its first supersonic, rocket-powered flight with its SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity spacecraft three years after a fatal accident on an earlier version of the ship.

Unity is the first vehicle to be built from scratch for Virgin Galactic by British engineering firm The Spaceship Company which is 70 per cent owned by Virgin.

The test flight took place over the Sierra Nevada mountains at about 8am local time. The VMS Eve carrier plane took off from Mojave, California, carrying SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity before releasing it 14,000m above ground, Virgin Galactic said in a statement.

A rocket motor then accelerated Unity to Mach 1.87 during a 30-second rocket burn before the ship’s two pilots shut it down. The spaceship reached 25,000m before making a smooth runway landing, the company said.

“Space feels tantalisingly close now,” Branson Tweeted after the test flight.

Camera footage of the test flight

Virgin Galactic’s original SpaceShipTwo vehicle broke apart during an October 2014 test flight that killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot, in an accident that was ultimately attributed to pilot error.  Both were employees of Scaled Composites, a Northrop Grumman subsidiary based in Mojave that built the vehicle.

The new SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity is the second in a planned fleet of five.

In 2016, the space company was granted an operating license to fly its passenger ship with the world’s first paying space tourists once final safety tests are completed. The spacecraft completed its first free-glide flight later that year, a major step towards yesterday’s flight. 

The company has not yet announced a date for the start of passenger flights but is selling tickets for a ride aboard SpaceShipTwo at $250,000 a seat. Rides will take passengers about 100km above Earth, high enough to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of Earth set against the blackness of space.

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