Virgin Galactic Space Plane Travels Twice the Speed of Sound, Commercial Flights Next?

A Virgin Galactic rocket launched its commercial spacecraft and the two pilots aboard more than 30 miles into the atmosphere above the Mojave Desert at almost two and a half times the speed of sound.

The VSS Unity's third launch marked the first time a Virgin Galactic spaceship entered the mesosphere, a middle layer of Earth's atmosphere 30 to 50 miles above its surface, an altitude too high for commercial aircraft and weather balloons to reach. Company heads hope the successful test proves its first round of space tours isn't too far off.

The "space plane," propelled by rockets for more than 40 seconds to reach a speed of Mach 2.47, traveled more than 170,800 feet in the atmosphere. The next step, Virgin engineers said, is to cross the Kármán Line, 62 miles above the Earth's sea level, which is commonly considered the point where the atmosphere ends and space begins.

But the VSS Unity might have flown even closer to the edge of space than previously thought, according to new research released Wednesday that claims the Kármán Line is actually 43 to 55 miles from the Earth's surface. There, aircrafts must travel at a speed greater than orbital velocity to remain in the air.

The Unity's initial launch in April, when it reached an altitude of 84,000 feet at Mach 1.87, was the company's first in four years since the failed flight of its SpaceShipTwo in October 2014. That craft broke and crashed after launch, killing one of the pilots and injuring another, who escaped with a parachute.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo flies over the Mojave Desert in southeastern California in August 2013. The company's VSS Unity spacecraft successfully reached an altitude of 30 miles at more than twice the speed of sound in a July test flight. (Photo by Reuters/Gene Blevins)

In May, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said the rockets were only "two to three" tests away from use in commercial flights. The company is in close competition with Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos's aerospace venture, which has already launched its New Shepard space capsule more than 66 miles high, skimming the bounds of space. Tours could begin sometime next year, Bezos said. For up to $300,000, passengers aboard the six-person craft can unbuckle their seat belts and float in zero gravity for a portion of their trip.

Boeing, however, might beat them both. The company successfully launched the engine that powers its Phantom Express space plane 10 times in 10 days earlier in July and created for the Air Force two X-37B space planes, used to conduct classified suborbital research. The Express plane, set for a test flight in 2021, uses only one engine to propel it more than 40 to 60 miles high in the atmosphere, CBS reported.

Delays have plagued nearly every commercial aerospace company's goals for future space flight. In 2017, SpaceX founder Elon Musk promised he'd send two tourists to the moon (for $300 million each) on the company's "Big F---ing Rocket" (BFR). But when the rocket's development stalled this year, company officials postponed the flight until an unknown date in 2019.

So far, only seven "tourists" have sojourned in space, with lodging at the International Space Station, which grew too crowded to accommodate tourists in 2009.

Correction: The headline has been changed to reflect the fact the Virgin Galactic spaceplane flew at twice the speed of sound, not the twice speed of light as previously stated.