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Virgin Galactic launches high-performance aircraft that will carry passengers to the edge of space

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Virgin Galactic – the space tourism company founded by British billionaire Richard Branson – has returned its supersonic plane to the edge of space for the first time since 2021, when Branson took his own journey into the cosmos.

The company’s space plane, VSS Unity, carried two pilots and a crew of four Virgin Galactic employees on Thursday’s test flight, which took off from a runway in New Mexico at about 11:15 a.m. ET, according to Virgin Galactic’s Twitter account.

The rocket-powered aircraft is designed to cruise to about 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) above the Earth’s surface while attached under the wing of a massive twin-fuselage mother ship, dubbed “Eve” by the company. The spacecraft is designed to then detach from the mother ship, fire the rocket engine and swing straight up with the two pilots at the controls.

Virgin Galactic confirmed just before 12:30pm ET that the VSS Unity completed its blast-off into space. The spacecraft then kissed back to a landing back at New Mexico’s Spaceport America.

Flights are designed to reach more than 50 miles (80.5 km) above Earth, to heights the United States government recognizes as the limit of outer space.

At the top of the flight, passengers are expected to have experienced a few minutes of weightlessness and can look out of the plane’s windows at the curved horizon of the Earth and the darkness of space. From take-off to landing, the missions usually last less than two hours.

Company officials hope this will be the last test run before Virgin Galactic can open up tours to paying customers in late June — after years of promises, missed deadlines and Branson’s sale of a large portion of his original stake in the company. But if the test flight runs into major problems on Thursday, the problems could put Virgin Galactic’s future in doubt or lead to longer delays.

The company has been here before. Virgin Galactic had appeared poised to begin commercial operations after it launched Branson to the edge of space with three crew members in July 2021, a flight that came less than two weeks before Branson’s rival Jeff Bezos made his own flight to the edge of outer space. Branson denied that he had run with Bezos.

But the US Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial rocket launches, later opened an investigation into Branson’s flight when it was revealed that the space plane veered off course during the high-profile flight.

The six people on Thursday’s test mission include pilots CJ Sturckow and Mike Masucci, as well as Virgin Galactic employee Jamila Gilbert, a New Mexican native who works in the company’s internal communications; Chris Hume, an aeronautical engineer and son of Jamaican immigrants; Luke Mays, an astronaut instructor and former NASA employee; and Beth Moses, the company’s manager of astronaut training, who has joined two previous flights.

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