GALACTIC MILESTONE: Richard Branson celebrates Virgin's historic first human spaceflight

VSS Unity soaring above Earth at the border of outer space. Image Virgin Galactic

VSS Unity soaring above Earth at the border of outer space. Image Virgin Galactic

During a test flight Thursday morning in Mojave, Calif., a pair of pilots flying the company's SpaceShipTwo spacecraft hit an altitude of 51.4 miles.

The carrier airplane hauled the SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket plane to an altitude of about 45,000 feet (13.7 kms) and released it. Seconds later, SpaceShipTwo fired, catapulting it to more than 51 miles above Earth, high enough for the pilots to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet.

The rocket-powered plane, VSS Unity, was flown by two veteran pilots to a maximum altitude of 51.4 miles, surpassing the 50-mile mark that the USA government recognizes as the edge of space.

Virgin's latest flight test comes four years after the original SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight that killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot, dealing a major setback to Virgin Galactic, a USA offshoot of the London-based Virgin Group. However there is a long-held view that the boundary - a region known as the Karman Line - lies a good distance higher at 100 kilometres (62 miles).

It was the fourth powered test flight for VSS Unity and the closest yet to mimicking the flight path that it is expected to one day take on commercial missions. During the launch, the spacecraft achieved speeds of just under mach 3.0 (3 times the speed of sound).

Richard Branson celebrates with VSS Unity's pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “CJ” Sturckow. Image Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson celebrates with VSS Unity's pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “CJ” Sturckow. Image Virgin Galactic

With the advent of commercial companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin eager to give astronaut wings to passengers on their suborbital flights, how to define the boundary is the subject of debate. Well, the definition of space is somewhat hazy, but Virgin's pilots are astronauts by at least one definition.

VSS Unity takes to the skies for her first space flight. The flight on December 13 was Virgin Galactic longest rocket-powered flight ever.

An worldwide organization defines space as being outside the Earth's atmosphere at an altitude of more than 100 kilometers, while the US Air Force sets the boundary at 80 kilometers. For the past few hours, Virgin Galactic has posted numerous photos from today's landmark mission on various social media platforms, including a photo of Mark Stucky and CJ Sturckow, the two crew members who piloted the mission. Mr Branson originally envisaged fleets of spaceships sending passengers into space by 2007.

Then, in 2014, SpaceShipTwo broke apart during a test flight by Scaled Composites when the co-pilot prematurely unlocked its unique "feathering" braking system and it began to deploy. SpaceX's Elon Musk recently announced plans to take a wealthy Japanese entrepreneur and his friends on a trip around the moon. CSF President Eric Stallmer said the "commercial space industry will create unprecedented opportunities for space tourism and democratize space for all". A 90-minute flight costs $250,000. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides noted that recent research favors the lower altitude.

Almost 700 people have paid or put down deposits to fly aboard Virgin's suborbital missions, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber.

Geraint Thomas wins BBC Sports Personality of the Year
At the time of the theft in September, Thomas appealed for its return and said: "The trophy means a lot to me and to the team". He later said on social media that his celebrations could not last for too long as he had to get back to training camp.

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