SpaceShipTwo zooms through third supersonic flight

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity, fires up its hybrid rocket motor during a supersonic test flight. ( and Trumbull Studios via Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic sent its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity, to its highest-ever altitude today during its third powered test flight — setting the stage for a full-powered push across the boundary of outer space.

Unity was hooked beneath its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane this morning for takeoff from Mojave Air and Space Port in California. About an hour into the flight, the rocket plane was dropped into the air and fired its single hybrid rocket motor, punching upward into the sky.

Virgin Galactic reported that the craft executed a 42-second rocket burn and hit a top speed of Mach 2.47. Maximum altitude was 170,800 feet (32 miles, or 52 kilometers). That’s higher than high-altitude balloons can fly, and more than halfway to outer space.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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