By THE BAKERSFIELD CALIFORNIAN
SpaceShipTwo flew higher and faster on Friday than it ever has before.
But the rocket-powered reuseable space vehicle will need to climb much higher still to reach its goal.
Virgin Galactic successfully completed the third supersonic test flight of its passenger-carrying space tourism vehicle Friday morning in eastern Kern County.
The company reported in a news release that the flight left Mojave Air and Space Port at 7:22 a.m., with its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, lifting SS2 to an altitude of about 46,000 feet.
Once SpaceShipTwo was released, its rocket motor was ignited, powering the ship to a planned altitude of 71,000 feet, its highest altitude to date — and a maximum speed of Mach 1.4, according to Virgin officials.
Eventually, before projected tourist spaceflights can begin later this year, SS2 must reach an altitude of about 100 kilometers, or some 62 miles above sea level. This Karman Line, which commonly represents the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, is equal to about 328,000 feet in altitude, more than four times the heights reached in Friday’s test flight.
But each new test flight, both powered and unpowered, charts incremental progress, and officials said in the release that Virgin Galactic’s Chief Pilot Dave Mackay successfully tested the spaceship’s reaction control system and a new thermal protection coating on the ship’s tail booms to protect the ship’s skin against the heat generated by its rocket engines.
“I couldn’t be happier to start the New Year with all the pieces visibly in place for the start of full space flights,” Virgin’s founder Sir Richard Branson said in the release.
This year, he said, “will be the year when we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space.”