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Virgin Galactic goes where it's gone twice before, for the first time in two years

First launch from New Mexico facility goes off without a hitch, ticks regulatory boxes and even does some science

On Saturday, Virgin Galactic completed another test flight, and the first from its new launch location outside White Sands National Park in New Mexico.

VSS Unity, the name given to Virgin Galactic's second spaceplane, took off bolted to Virgin's mothership VMS Eve. After release, it hit Mach 3 and an apogee of 55.45 miles (89km) – below, we note, the 100-mile Kármán boundary where space begins, and above the US Air Force and NASA's 50-mile definition – before its descent and runway landing.

The spacecraft is designed to hold six passengers and two pilots, but had just two onboard on Saturday – pilot-in-command CJ Sturckow and co-pilot Dave Mackay. Kelly Latimer and Michael Masucci, piloted VMS Eve. As many things are still a first these days when it comes to spacecraft, Virgin lauded Sturckow as "the first person ever to have flown to space from three different states."

Virgin Galactic described the experience in a canned statement:

The crew experienced extraordinary views of the bright, blue-rimmed curvature of Earth against the blackness of space. New Mexico’s White Sands National Park sparkled brilliantly below.

The beardy Branson-backed company's business is selling joyrides, but the flight did fulfill a number of scientific objectives.

Virgin Galactic said VSS Unity carried revenue-generating research experiments for NASA's Flight Opportunities Program, a program that facilitates projects NASA thinks will eventually be useful to them or the US commercial spaceflight industry.

The flight also collected data needed for the company to obtain its FAA commercial reusable spacecraft operator's license, validated EMI restrictions and tested the vehicle's upgraded horizontal stabilizers and flight controls.

In their statement, Virgin Galactic said:

Following the flight, and in line with normal procedures, Virgin Galactic will conduct a review of all test data gathered and thoroughly inspect the spaceship and mothership. Once the team confirms the results, the Company plans to proceed to the next flight test milestone.

The flight is the first for the company in over two years and what Virgin Galactic hopes is "a meaningful step toward the opening of commercial space travel."

Parties interested in a joyride can register their interest online. The online form warns the price of a flight will top $250k for those who sign up early, a bargain compared to the minimum $1.4m Blue Origin wants to charge to get passengers to get into space. ®

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