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In the new race among space tourism companies, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic seems to keep inching closer to the goal of bringing visitors to the final frontier.

Earlier this year, Branson said Virgin Galactic was just “two or three more flights” away from reaching space.

And on Thursday, Virgin Galactic successfully checked off another one of those test flights. During that test launch, the company’s Unity rocket reportedly went faster and higher than ever before.

In fact, Thursday’s launch fired the rocket’s engine for 11 seconds longer than the last test, for a total burn time of 42 seconds. That’s an important benchmark because Virgin Galactic is incrementally increasing the amount of time the engine fires for each flight, Branson told CNBC, until the rocket can reach the target altitude of 264,000 feet — about 7.5x higher than an average commercial flight. At that altitude, astro-tourists onboard can see the curvature of the Earth and feel weightlessness.

“The rocket motor is performing terrific; we’re actually getting some extra thrust,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides told CNBC. “Really what that means is that we’re getting up to the speed which will be the actual speeds for our spaceflight journey.”

A two-member crew operated Unity in Thursday’s flight, which was launched by mothership Eve. Unity pushed past the speed of sound at Mach 2.47 speeds and reached a peak altitude of 170,800 feet. It then turned and glided safely back to land on the runway at the space port in the Mojave Desert.

Unity
Unity’s crew in the rocket’s cockpit. Photo by Virgin Galactic via CNBC.

Virgin Galactic already has 700 interested passengers signed up to go to space — for $250,000 a pop.

The space tourism company has made major strides toward its goal after testing was wrenched in 2014 when its first rocket launcher, the Spaceship Enterprise, experienced a fatal crash in October of that year. Virgin Galactic’s first power launch since the fatal accident was in April.

Featured image by Virgin Galactic. 

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