Hold on to your butts. A new video lets you fly along on the second rocket-powered flight of Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity space plane, and the view is amazing.
The 2.5-minute video. which you can see above, chronicles yesterday's (May 29) test flight over California's Mojave Desert from takeoff to landing. It features gorgeous shots of Unity rocketing upward atop a tail of bright-orange flame and takes you inside the cockpit, showing pilots Dave Mackay and Mark "Forger" Stucky flipping switches and pressing buttons.
Unity is Virgin's latest SpaceShipTwo vehicle, a two-pilot, six-passenger craft designed to take paying customers and scientific experiments to suborbital space and back. SpaceShipTwo is hauled aloft by a carrier plane known as WhiteKnightTwo and dropped at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), at which point the space plane fires up its onboard rocket motor. [Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity Spaceliner in Pictures]
Like NASA's now-retired space shuttle orbiters, SpaceShipTwo vehicles end their missions with a runway landing.
Unity has now completed 13 test flights since its February 2016 unveiling. Four have been "captive-carry" missions in which the vehicle stayed attached to WhiteKnightTwo, seven have been unpowered "glide flights" and two have engaged Unity's rocket engine.
Yesterday's flight came about seven weeks after Unity's first powered test, which took place April 5. During yesterday's mission, Unity fired its engine for 31 seconds, topped out at about 1.9 times the speed of sound and reached a maximum altitude of 114,500 feet (34,900 m), Virgin Galactic representatives said.
If all continues to go well during the test campaign, VSS Unity could begin operational flights sometime this year. Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson has said he will be on the first commercial flight of the vehicle. (Tickets to ride the space plane currently sell for $250,000 apiece.)
Unity is Virgin Galactic's second SpaceShipTwo vehicle. The first, VSS Enterprise, broke apart during a powered test flight on Oct. 31, 2014. The accident killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injured pilot Peter Siebold.
Investigators determined that the accident occurred because Alsbury unlocked Enterprise's "feathering" descent system too early in the flight, and faulted the vehicle's design for allowing this to happen. Unity's design was modified to address this issue, Virgin Galactic representatives have said.
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Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.