Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, the self-proclaimed "world's first commercial spaceline," made history again this week. Announcing the successful completion of its second faster-than-sound test flight, VG says its SpaceShipTwo experimental spacecraft, or SS2, has achieved a new top speed record for itself and set a new altitude record for winged commercial aircraft in general.
At approximately 8 a.m. local time Thursday, SS2's mothership -- the WhiteKnight2 carrier vehicle, or WK2, took off from its base at the Mojave Air and Space Port, with SS2 riding piggyback.
Rising to an altitude of 46,000 feet, WK2 released SS2. At that time, SS2 ignited its rocket boosters and, over the course of a 20-second, Mach 1.43 "burn," lofted itself a further 23,000 feet. Having hit 69,000 feet and broken the altitude record, SS2 then executed what Virgin calls a "feathering" re-entry, flew back to base, and landed safely at 9:25 a.m. Total time elapsed: about 85 minutes.
Feathering is described as a technique where the spaceship's tail rotates as much as 65 degrees from its original orientation, turning the spaceship into "a giant shuttlecock" and slowing down the spaceship as it re-enters Earth atmosphere. This was the first time the technique was attempted as part of "the vehicle's full technical mission profile."
With this milestone now complete, Branson says the company continues to anticipate "a 2014 start of commercial service" aboard SS2. Both SS2 and its WK2 carrier are built by Virgin Galactic partner and Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC ) subsidiary Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif. Northrop bought Scaled Composites back in July 2007.