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.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot suborbital vehicle, resumed test flights on Tuesday following a six-month hiatus for modifications.
The spaceship and its carrier jet, WhiteKnightTwo, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port, located about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, shortly after 10 a.m. PDT. About 30 minutes later, SpaceShipTwo was released for an unpowered glide back to the runway.
At the controls were Scaled Composites pilots Pete Siebold and Michael Masucci.
“It went really well,” Siebold told Discovery News after the flight. “We learned a lot.”
SpaceShipTwo hadn’t been airborne since a glide flight on Jan. 14. It previously made three powered flights before Virgin Galactic decided in May to switch to an alternative plastic fuel in hopes of boosting the hybrid engine’s performance.
The company, a U.S. offshoot of Richard Branson’s London-based Virgin Group, is selling rides on SpaceShipTwo for $250,000. It hopes SpaceShipTwo will make its first foray beyond the atmosphere this year.
So far, more than 700 people have put down deposits or paid for rides. The company has not yet set a date for when it will begin commercial flight services.
Photo: SpaceShipTwo and carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo are prepared for takeoff on Tuesday in Mojave, Calif. Credit: Virgin Galactic