SpaceShipTwo's rocket engine burst to life during a successful powered test flight over the Mojave Desert, Calif., on Friday.
On April 29, 2013, Virgin Galactic took a huge step toward suborbital spaceflight -- the six-person SpaceShipTwo ignited its rocket engine for the first time in flight, accelerating it to supersonic speeds. Richard Branson called the test "critical." Seen here, WhiteKnightTwo -- SpaceShipTwo's mothership -- taxis along the airstrip at California's Mojave Air ans Space Port shortly before takeoff at 7 a.m. PST.
At an altitude of 46,000 ft, WhiteKnightTwo released the spaceship -- manned by a three-person test crew including Virgin Galactic's lead pilot David Mackay.
Shortly after release, the spaceship's rocket engine lit up, accelerating the vehicle faster than sound.
The rocket engine fired for 16 seconds during the landmark flight test. "It looked stunning," Richard Branson told Discovery News shortly after the test.
A telescopic view from the ground highlights the bright exhaust from the SpaceShipTwo's single RocketMotorTwo.
A tail-mounted camera captures an intimate look at the RocketMotorTwo's nozzle -- signatures of the ground crew can be seen on the nozzle.
Richard Branson celebrates the successful flight test with 'Forger' a.k.a. Mark Stucky.
Burt Rutan congratulates Branson after the successful supersonic test flight.
SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot spaceplane owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, fired up its rocket engine for a test flight over California’s Mojave Desert on Friday, the third in an ongoing series prior to the start of commercial suborbital passenger flights later this year.
The spaceship’s carrier jet, WhiteKnightTwo, took off just after dawn from the Mojave Air and Space Port, where designer Scaled Composites is based.
WhiteKnightTwo climbed to an altitude of about 46,000 feet and released the spaceship, which carried Virgin Galactic chief pilot David Mackay and co-pilot Mark Stucky.
Mackay fired up his ship’s rocket engine for 20 seconds, soaring to about 71,000 feet, about twice the altitude that commercial jetliners fly and the highest yet for SpaceShipTwo.
The ship then flipped its movable tail to fall like a shuttlecock back through the atmosphere.
“She flew brilliantly,” Mackay said in a statement after landing. “All the tests went really well and generated vital data that will be used to further fine-tune our operations.”
Virgin Galactic, which already has sold more than 650 rides on SpaceShipTwo, is aiming to begin passenger service later this year. Tickets sell for $250,000.
“I couldn’t be happier to start the New Year with all the pieces visibly in place for the start of full space flights,” Branson said in a statement.
“With each flight test, we are progressively closer to our target of starting commercial service in 2014,” added Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides.