SpaceShipTwo goes supersonic in first powered flight since fatal breakup in 2014

Virgin Galactic conducts first rocket-powered test since 2014 crash

Commercial space travel is "tantalisingly close" after the successful test of a rocket, Sir Richard Branson has said.

VSS Unity fired its rocket engine for 30 seconds yesterday, reaching a maximum altitude of 84,271 feet (25,686 meters) - that's almost 16 miles (25 kilometers) - and a top speed of Mach 1.87, Virgin Galactic representatives said.

The company has not yet announced a date for the start of passenger flights but is selling tickets for a ride aboard SpaceShipTwo at $250,000 a seat. WhiteKnightTwo carries the plane up into the air before it's released, when the Unity uses its rocket propulsion to shoot itself up to the Karman line, just shy of the very edge of space at 100 km above Earth's surface.

We've had our first glimpse of Virgin Galactic's new test flight and it's out of this world. The successful test flight is the result of over 2 years of extensive ground and atmospheric testing. The carrier jet, piloted by Mike Masucci and Nicola Pecile, climbed to an altitude of around 46,500 feet (about 14,200 meters) over the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

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At approximately 50,000 feet (15,240 meters), the tail-booms were lowered again.

Neither pilot commanded the feathering mechanism to engage, but strong aerodynamic forces caused the feather's two booms to rotate into their re-entry positions once they were unlocked, leading to the vehicle's disintegration. Both were employees of Scaled Composites, a Northrop Grumman subsidiary based in Mojave that built the vehicle.

"The flight has generated valuable data on flight, motor and vehicle performance which our engineers will be reviewing", Virgin said in a statement on the company's web page.

Update for 1:30 p.m. PT April 5: This report has been updated with Virgin Galactic's post-flight recap. Unity, which "incorporates the additional safety mechanisms adopted after the 2014 VSS Enterprise test flight accident", according to a press release, is much heavier and is not created to reach quite those heights. The company can now proceed with new phases, including full-duration rocket burns and powered flight. Virgin Galactic's promised passengers or scientists "Exposure to several minutes of high quality microgravity per flight" on each launch.

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