Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo — designed to carry paying passengers beyond Earth's atmosphere — passed a key test Monday, shooting past the speed of sound under its own rocket power.
The spacecraft developed by Sir Richard Branson's space tourism venture dropped from its mother ship over the Mojave Desert and then, for the first time, fired its engine. It hit Mach 1.2 and reached an altitude of 56,000 feet before gliding to a landing.
"The rocket motor ignition went as planned, with the expected burn duration, good engine performance and solid vehicle handling qualities throughout," Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides said in a statement. "The successful outcome of this test marks a pivotal point for our program. We will now embark on a handful of similar powered flight tests, and then make our first test flight to space."
"SpaceShipTwo is a suborbital vehicle, designed to carry space tourists on trips to the edge of space and back for $200,000 a ride. Though these flights wouldn't make a full orbit of the planet, they would provide passengers with a brief experience of weightlessness and a view of Earth from the blackness of space. ...
"If test flights continue to go well, SpaceShipTwo may carry passengers as soon as this year or 2014, Virgin Galactic officials have said. Already, more than 500 people have signed up for the flights, which will be run out of Spaceport America in New Mexico once testing is complete."
Branson said in a statement that Monday's test is "without any doubt our single most important flight test to date," adding that it's a "very realistic goal" for the rocket ship to make a trip into space by the end of the year.