SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger commercial spaceship owned by Virgin Galactic, has been cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration to begin test flights beyond the atmosphere.
Spaceship builder Scaled Composites received an experimental launch permit from the FAA on May 23.
"The Spaceship program is making steady progress, and we are all looking forward to lighting the vehicle’s rocket engine in flight for the first time,” Scaled president Doug Shane said in a statement.
Virgin Galactic, which made the announcement on Wednesday, said it expects the first powered test flight near the end of the year.
SpaceShipTwo is modeled on the prototype SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 for the first privately funded human spaceflights.
SpaceShipOne flew three times beyond the atmosphere, each time with a solo pilot aboard, and reached an altitude of nearly 70 miles above the planet on its final flight. The spaceship is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.
Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, is selling suborbital rides on SpaceShipTwo for $200,000. Already, about 500 people have signed on for the flights, which will give participants a few minutes of weightlessness and a view of the Earth backdropped against the black sky of space.
The FAA permit is good for one year.
(Image: SpaceShipTwo, attached to its carrier ship, puts in a guest appearance in New Mexico, where a commercial spaceport is under construction. Credit: Virgin Galactic.)