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Virgin Galactic plane takes 51-mile-high spaceflight

Virgin Galactic spaceflight
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne rocket plane, dubbed VSS Unity, fires its hybrid rocket motor for a 51-mile-high flight. (MarsScientific.com / Trumbull Studios)

MOJAVE, Calif. — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, dubbed VSS Unity, has become the first privately funded vehicle in 14 years to carry people to the edge of space — depending on how you define space.

“I’m not allowed to say this, but hopefully we’re going to space today!” Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, said just after the flight took off from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port today.

Over the course of almost an hour, SpaceShipTwo and its White Knight Two mothership rose to a launch altitude of about 43,000 feet. Just before 8 a.m.. PT, the rocket plane was dropped from White Knight Two’s underbelly and lit up its own hybrid rocket motor.

The rocket blasted for 60 seconds, sending Unity upward at supersonic speeds as high as Mach 2.9 and powering test pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Rick “CJ” Sturckow to a height of 271,268 feet. That translates to 51.4 miles, or 82.6 kilometers.

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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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