SpaceShipTwo Aces Third Rocket-Powered Test Flight

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.