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Branson’s Virgin Galactic flies its first commercial mission

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity rocket plane takes off under the fuselage of its carrier aircraft in this photo from a previous test flight.

Enlarge / Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity rocket plane takes off under the fuselage of its carrier aircraft in this photo from a previous test flight. (credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic launched three Italian researchers and three company employees on the suborbital operator’s first commercial flight to the edge of space Thursday.

The six-man crew rocketed to an altitude of more than 279,000 feet, higher than the 50-mile height recognized as the boundary of space by NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, according to Virgin Galactic, the space tourism firm founded in 2004 by Richard Branson.

The company’s large carrier jet, called VMS Eve, took off from a runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico and climbed to an altitude of about 45,000 feet, where it released the VSS Unity rocket plane at 11:28 am EDT (1528 UTC) to ignite its motor and start the climb to suborbital space.

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