Virgin Galactic's New SpaceShipTwo is Taking Shape

Six months after Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight, a new version of the suborbital space plane is coming together in a hangar in the California desert.

Six months after Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight, a new version of the suborbital space plane is coming together in a hangar in the California desert.

SpaceShipTwo, which was known as VSS Enterprise, broke apart in midair on Oct. 31, 2014, killing copilot Michael Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold. Virgin Galactic representatives vowed to press on despite the tragic accident, and another SpaceShipTwo is indeed taking shape.

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"That new vehicle - which has not yet been formally named, though it's had various internal nicknames over the years - is coming along at a steady pace, thanks to the efforts of the women and men in our manufacturing organization, The Spaceship Company," Virgin Galactic representatives wrote in an update Monday (May 4) that included a new photo of the vehicle under construction at a facility in Mojave, California.

"In recent weeks, we've finished the final cure cycle of the main cabin (pictured here), closed out the main portions of the wings, and completed other important steps in the build plan," they added.

The six-passenger SpaceShipTwo spacecraft is designed to take paying customers on brief journeys to suborbital space. The space plane is carried to an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) by an aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo, then dropped. At that point, SpaceShipTwo's onboard rocket engine fires up, propelling the craft upward.

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SpaceShipTwo is still in the test phase - the Oct. 31 mission was the vehicle's fourth rocket-powered test flight - but hundreds of hopeful customers, including a number of celebrities, have already put down deposits to reserve a seat. Tickets currently sell for $250,000 per seat.

SpaceShipTwo's "feathering" system, which rotates the vehicle's tail booms upward to increase stability and drag during re-entry to Earth's atmosphere, deployed too soon on Oct. 31, investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have determined. The NTSB is still looking into crash; officials have said the investigation could take a year.

Virgin Galactic representatives say that safety remains their top priority, and that they will not rush the new SpaceShipTwo into the skies.

"Our hope is that the second SpaceShipTwo will enter into testing later this year, beginning with ground testing, then progressing through captive carry flights, glide flights, and eventually powered flights to progressively higher speeds and altitudes," company representatives wrote in Monday's update.

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Virgin Galactic's second SpaceShipTwo vehicle under construction at a hangar in Mojave, California. The first SpaceShipTwo was destroyed in a tragic accident in October 2014 that killed copilot Michael Alsbury and injured pilot Peter Siebold.

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.

More test flights of SpaceShipTwo are expected, and the first space tourism flights will likely take place in 2014.