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Virgin Galactic spaceplane smashes altitude record in latest test flight

Image: Virgin Galactic
On July 26, VSS Unity rose to an altitude of 32.3 miles and reached a speed of Mach 2.47, or almost two-and-a-half times the speed of sound, over California's Mojave Desert. Copyright MarsScientific.com Trumbull Studios
Copyright MarsScientific.com Trumbull Studios
By David Freeman with NBC News Tech and Science News
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Sleek craft climbs to 32 miles over California's Mojave Desert.

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Virgin Galactic completed the third rocket-powered test flight of its VSS Unity spaceplane today over California's Mojave Desert, bringing billionaire Richard Branson's space tourism company a step closer to taking its first customers into space.

After being released from under the wing of its carrier plane at 46,500 feet, VSS Unity fired its rocket motor for 42 seconds to propel itself and its two pilots to a speed of Mach 2.47, or almost two-and-a-half times the speed of sound, Virgin Galactic said in a blog post.

The sleek craft reached an altitude of 170,800 feet (32.3 miles) — more than halfway to the Kármán line that marks the boundary between the upper atmosphere and outer space — before descending and landing safely at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

VSS Unity went higher and faster than it did during its second such test flight on May 29, when it reached a speed of Mach 1.9 and rose to an altitude of 114,500 feet.

"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," Virgin Galactic's chief pilot Dave Mackay said in the post.

The craft's first test flight came on April 5, four years after the Oct. 31, 2014 crash of another Virgin Galactic spaceplane, which claimed the life of test pilot Michael Alsbury.

The test was designed in part to gain a better understanding of the environment inside the passenger cabin, measuring temperatures, acceleration, vibration and other factors, according to the post.

Along with Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic is one of a handful of companies that intend to take space tourists up on brief suborbital flights. The company hasn't indicated exactly when it will start commercial flights, although Branson has said that could come sometime this year.

About 800 people have bought a ticket for a Virgin Galactic flight, Branson told Bloomberg in a recent interview. Want to buy one? They go for $250,000.

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